OAKLAND (CBS SF) — An investigator with the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives testified Wednesday that the large amount of flammable materials at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland made the deadly fire spread quickly there in December 2016.
On the witness stand in the fifth week of the trial of Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena, 49, and creative director Max Harris, 29, ATF agent Barbara Maxwell said, “There was an enormous amount of debris in the building” in the 1300 block of 31st Avenue, where 36 people died in a blaze during a music party on the night of Dec. 2, 2016.
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Maxwell was referring to the campers, recreational vehicles, artwork, tapestries, rugs, statues, and dozens of pianos and organs that filled the building, which was used an artists’ collective.
She said a high fire load makes a blaze burn more quickly and creates smoke that travels through a building quickly, adding that smoke is more lethal than flames. Prosecutors say that all 36 victims died of smoke inhalation.
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Almena and Harris face 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, one for each of the victims.
Maxwell 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.
Maxwell investigated the fire with former Oakland Acting Assistant Fire Marshal Maria Sabatini, who testified last week that she and other investigators were unable to determine the cause of the fire, although Sabatini said that’s not uncommon in a large fire such as the Ghost Ship blaze in which there is a large amount of debris.
Maxwell said electrical engineers who helped with the investigation looked at the possibility that electrical appliances and the building electrical system were factors in the fire but “were not able to come to a conclusion for or against an electrical cause.”
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 warehouse didn’t have important safeguards, such as fire extinguishers, smoke alarms and exit signs.
Prosecutors also say Almena and Harris violated the terms of the warehouse’s lease by turning it into a living space and hosting underground music parties there.
But attorneys for Almena and Harris allege that the fire was an act of arson that they couldn’t have prevented.
Maxwell will continue testifying when the trial resumes on Thursday.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson told jurors that the prosecution is “very close” to finishing presenting the case and the trial is ahead of schedule.
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