OAKLAND (KPIX) — Arguments for the defense began Monday in the Ghost Ship warehouse fire trial in Oakland.
Attorneys for Derek Almena and Max Harris, the two men being held responsible for the deaths of 36 people, are trying to show that others also played a significant role in the tragedy.
The first witness was a woman named Sharon Evans. She testified she was at a nearby taco restaurant as the fire was raging and said she overheard a group of young men happily congratulating each other about what they had just done.
“They were talking about the way the fire was going…nobody was ever going to be able to make it out. Nobody was ever going to be able to escape,” said Tyler Smith, attorney for defendant Max Harris. “She says she heard approximately five of these men making these comments. They were all dressed in black, wearing black hoodies. This is what the witness says…this isn’t something the defense is making up.”
The defense is alleging arsonists intentionally set the fire. Their second witness was Michael Russell who lived in the Ghost Ship and barely escaped the fire. He testified he saw a couple of men he didn’t recognize in dark clothing running for the exit shortly after the fire began.
“He said it was, he thought, two or three males based on their build,” Smith said. “So, that’s consistent with what Ms. Evans overheard.”
Russell also testified that he heard a woman in a red beanie and green dress yelling to others not to go downstairs…which turned out to be the only real escape route.
The defense is hoping if it can show the actions of others contributed to the tragedy, it will break the liability of Almena and Harris for creating the dangerous space and inviting people into it.
But Colleen Dolan lost her daughter Chelsea in the fire and says none of the legal wrangling should absolve the two men of their responsibility.
“It should not have been built in the first place,” Dolan said. “It doesn’t matter if it was ‘beautiful’ or ‘awesome’ or anything else. It doesn’t matter how the fire started. The fact is it went up like a torch. It went up like a Burning Man structure…which is what they excelled in building in that Ghost Ship.”
There will be no testimony Tuesday. There are some procedural matters for the court to handle.
But defense attorneys say, in days to come, they will likely call city officials to the stand to try to establish that they knew about the dangerous conditions and did nothing.
The Ghost Ship fire occurred on the night of December 2nd, 2016, and remains the single most deadly structure fire in Oakland history.