The man who founded and ran the artists' collective at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland said he is grief stricken and "incredibly sorry" after the tragic fire that took his home and many of his friends.
But in speaking out about the tragedy he refused to answer questions about safety concerns, telling NBC's "Today" show that he would rather "get on the floor and get trampled by the parents" or "let them tear at my flesh than answer these ridiculous questions."
U.S. & World
Derick Almena is the lease holder of the converted warehouse in Oakland that caught fire Friday night, killing at least 36 people who had gathered there for a dance party.
"I'd gladly would give my entire life of fortune, of wealth and experence again and again," Almena said first in an interview with NBC Bay Area. "There's nothing more important than the lives lost there."
Almena, 46, said he did not organize or attend the event, which he described as a fusion of art and culture. Instead, he decided to rent a hotel for the night for his wife and three children.
City officials said the space was not permitted as a residential building, but Almena said about 20 people lived there. Almena said the group was a collective of young artists called Satya Yuga, and that he was like the group's grandfather.
"The center we all lived there, and was one of creativity, and beauty, and optimism," Almena told NBC Bay Area.
Almena, who was convicted in January of receiving stolen property and is now on probation, said police had been in and out of the East Oakland building through the past few years to respond to break-ins and other concerns of the people who lived there.
"They'd come in and walk through our space, and they'd always say, 'Wow, what an amazing space,'" Almena said.
In a follow-up interview on NBC's "Today" show, Almena said he was "only there to say one thing -- that I am incredibly sorry and that everything that I did was to make this a stronger, more beautiful community and to bring people together."
The interview grew contentious when Almena was asked about allegations that he was more concerned about making profits than safety. Almena said he didn't want to "talk about me."
"Profit? This is not profit, this is loss," he said on "Today." "This is a mass grave."
“People didn’t walk through those doors because it was a horrible place," he said. "People didn’t seek us out to perform and express themselves because it was a horrible place.”
Almena and his wife, Micah Allison, are cooperating with investigators and want to offer their hearts to the victims and their families, he said.
"We haven't been in any way hiding from this," Allison told NBC Bay Area.
"We're sorry to the families and all the friends that have lost loved ones," Almena said.