OAKLAND (CBS SF) — An Oakland fire captain testified Tuesday that Ghost Ship warehouse master tenant Derick Almena told him in September 2014 that no one was living at the structure in Oakland’s Fruitvale district where 36 people perished in a fire last year.
On the fourth day of a preliminary hearing for Almena, 47, and Ghost Ship creative director Max Harris, 27, who face 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, Oakland Fire Capt. George Freelen said he and several colleagues visited the building at 1309 31st Ave. in late September 2014, a few days after there’d been a couch fire outside the warehouse.
Freelen said the visit wasn’t a formal inspection but said he wanted to see what was inside the warehouse because “I like to see what’s in all the buildings in my district” and he said Almena gave him permission to enter the building.
Freelen said, “I noticed a lot of things inside there,” including artwork, pianos, a recreational vehicle and a trailer.
Freelen said, “Initially I was concerned about the fire load,” which he explained is the potential for fire from various materials inside a structure.
Freelen said he noted his concerns in a one-page report to Oakland fire inspectors but he said he doesn’t know if they ever followed up on his report.
Freelen said he asked Almena if anyone was living at the warehouse and Almena said no one was.
“I took him at his word,” Freelen said.
A fire that broke out at the warehouse during a music party on the night of Dec. 2, 2016, claimed the lives of 36 people.
The purpose of the preliminary hearing, which is expected to conclude on Wednesday, is to determine if there’s enough evidence for the pair to stand trial.
Tony Serra, Almena’s lead attorney, indicated after testimony concluded for the day late this afternoon that defense attorneys expect Almena and Harris to be ordered to stand trial.
Asked if defense lawyers will present any witnesses at the preliminary hearing, Serra said they won’t, adding, “We have defenses but we’re saving them strategically for the trial.”
Prosecutors allege that the warehouse violated several rules under the California Fire Code, such as not having adequate, fire-suppression systems, smoke alarms, exit signs and sprinklers.
Prosecutors also allege that Almena fostered an environment in which highly flammable materials were allowed and that Almena and Harris remodeled the warehouse without going through proper inspection and permitting procedures.
In addition, prosecutors say the industrial building wasn’t zoned for residential use.
Earlier Tuesday, former Ghost Ship resident Michael Russell testified that after the fire broke out on the night of Dec. 2, 2016, a woman who was wearing a red beanie and a green dress repeatedly screamed, “This is the will of the spirits of the forests” and urged people who were on the building’s second floor to stay there for their own safety, since the fire was downstairs.
Russell said, “It was like a horror movie.”
Russell, who said about 25 people lived at the building, said he didn’t recognize the woman and he doesn’t think she lived at the warehouse.
Asked by Serra if the woman appeared to be disturbed, Russell said, “I think she was reacting to a horrible situation in a real poor way.”
Russell said, “I pretty much fled for my life” after he saw the woman and said he never saw her again once he was outside the warehouse.
“I’m assuming she died that night,” Russell said.