Derick Almena, the manager of the Oakland, California, warehouse where 36 people were killed in a fire last week, defended himself and became visibly distraught during an interview with the Today show on Tuesday, December 6.
The building — which was owned by another individual but which Almena, 47, was in charge of leasing — was used as a residential artists' community, but many residents have claimed that the place wasn’t up to code. Almena explained that he opened the warehouse to artists who need shelter and to those who “can’t pay your rent because your dream is bigger than your pocketbook.”
However, he denied knowingly violating safety codes at the space, which housed more than 20 people. “I signed a lease, and I got a building that was to city standards supposedly,” he said.
Almena became more and more emotional as the interview progressed. When Today show cohosts Matt Lauer and Tamron Hall asked whether he was profiting off the warehouse’s residents, Almena apologized for the deadly incident. "This is profit? The loss of mass life? I’m a father. I laid my three children down there every night,” he said. "This is loss. This is a mass grave. I’m only here to say one thing: That I am incredibly sorry and that everything I did was to make this a stronger, more beautiful community and to bring people together. People didn’t walk through those doors because it was a horrible place. People didn’t seek us out to perform and express themselves because it was a horrible place.”
He also responded to criticism over checking into a hotel with his partner and their three children the night of the fire on Friday, December 2. “Did I remove my children from the space and get a hotel because I wanted to avoid this, because I wanted to cast blame on other people?” he said. “No, because I wanted to get a good night sleep with my children. I wanted to let the young people do what they needed to do.”
Almena was overcome with anguish by the end of the interview and refused to answer questions about what he did to ensure the safety of the residents, whether he should be held accountable for the fire and if he’s worried that he will charged.
“I’m not going to answer these questions the way you’re presenting them. I didn’t do anything ever in my life that would lead me up to this moment. I’m an honorable man. I’m a proud man,” he told Lauer and Hall. "I would rather get on the floor and be trampled by the parents. I would rather let them tear at my flesh than answer these ridiculous questions I am so sorry. I’m incredibly sorry.”
The fire was one of the deadliest ever recorded in the Oakland area. The blaze at the warehouse turned artist space, which was known as the Ghost Ship, started during an electronic dance party. Out of the 36 victims, 22 have been positively identified, 10 have been tentatively identified and three victims need scientific identification, the city said in a statement, according to CNN.
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