OAKLAND (CBS SF) — A former top Oakland fire official testified Thursday that there no evidence found of Molotov cocktails or other explosive devices at the scene of the deadly Ghost Ship Warehouse fire.
The presence of explosive materials is a key issue in the trial of Ghost Ship warehouse creative director Max Harris, 29, and master tenant Derick Almena, 49.
Their attorneys have said that the fire during a music party at the artists’ collective in the 1300 block of 31st Avenue the night of Dec. 2, 2016, was an act of arson and witnesses heard sounds of glass breaking, such as from Molotov cocktails.
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Defense lawyers say Almena and Harris, who face 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, one count for each of the 36 people who died in the blaze, shouldn’t be held criminally liable for an act of arson they couldn’t have prevented.
In her third day on the witness stand, former Oakland Acting Assistant Fire Marshall Maria Sabatini, who was one of the lead fire investigators, admitted under cross-examination that she couldn’t exclude Molotov cocktails or other incendiary devices as a possible cause of the fire but also said no evidence of such
materials was found.
She also admitted that she and other investigators from various agencies were unable to determine the cause of the fire but she said that’s not uncommon in a large fire such as the Ghost Ship one in which there is a large amount of debris.
Sabatini, who retired from her Oakland post last year and now works as a consultant, said she believes the fire started in a back area of the building’s first floor near two refrigerators, a toaster oven and two trailers that were used as living spaces, but she conceded that the exact point of origin wasn’t determined.
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Alameda County prosecutors allege that Almena and Harris are criminally responsible for the fire because there was no time and no way for the people at the party to escape since the two-story, 10,000-square-foot warehouse didn’t have important safeguards, such as fire extinguishers, smoke alarms and exit signs.
They also say Almena and Harris violated the terms of the warehouse’s lease by turning it into a living space where up to 25 people stayed and hosting underground music parties.
Prosecutors say that all 36 fire victims died from smoke inhalation.
There were so many victims that it took at least four forensic pathologists to determine the case of death for all of them. Three pathologists previously testified in the trial, which is nearing the end of its third week of testimony, and on Thursday a fourth pathologist, Dr. Paul Herrmann, testified that smoke inhalation was the cause of death for the eight victims he examined.
Herrmann said Chelsea Dolan, 33, a musician and DJ who lived in Marin County, had a carbon monoxide saturation level of 80 percent, which he said was higher than the other victims he examined.
Dolan’s mother Colleen Dolan, who lives in San Rafael, sobbed when Herrmann testified about her daughter’s cause of death and was consoled by David Gregory, the father of another victim, Michela Angelina Gregory, 20, of South San Francisco.