2 witnesses describe Ghost Ship Warehouse as 'death trap'

OAKLAND (BCN) Two witnesses at the preliminary hearing for Ghost Ship warehouse master tenant Derick Almena and creative director Max Harris described the structure in Oakland's Fruitvale district where 36 people perished in a fire last year as a death trap.

Construction worker Rodney Griffin testified that when he told Almena, 47, that the building at 1309 31st Ave. was a death trap Alameda responding by joking that the warehouse, which also was called the Satya Yuga Collective, should be called the "Satya Yuga death trap."

Electrician Robert Jacobitz, 56, also described the building as "a death trap" because of all the electrical problems it had.

Jacobitz said he warned Almena that he needed to do more electrical work to make the building safer but he said, "I don't think he (Almena) took it seriously."

Jacobitz said he made some minor electrical repairs to the building but said Almena indicated that he didn't have the kind of money that was needed to make the necessary repairs.

Jacobitz said that at one point he warned Almena, "It (the warehouse) is going to go at any time" so Almena finally bought a fire door but he said it wasn't completely installed and Almena didn't get a permit for it.

In another bad sign for the defense, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Horner, who's presiding over the hearing for Almena and Harris, strongly admonished one of Harris' three defense lawyers, Samuel Geller, when he asked witness Carmen Brita if she had been quoted in news articles as saying that Harris is "an innocent man."

The two prosecutors in the case immediately objected to Geller's question and Horner told Geller, "Don't do that again. Don't ask that kind of question in this courtroom."

The fire that broke out at the warehouse during a music party on the night of Dec. 2, 2016, claimed the lives of 36 people.

Almena and Harris, 27, who are in custody in lieu of $750,000 bail, are charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the fire, one count for each person who died.

The purpose of their preliminary hearing, which has lasted three days so far and will resume on Tuesday, is to determine if there's enough evidence for them to stand 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.

Brita, a schoolteacher, said she moved into the warehouse on New Year's Day in 2016 and described it as "the most beautiful place I've ever lived. Everything together has a sort of magic to it."

Brita, who was on the verge of tears as she talked about the building, said, "Everybody who came into that place knew it was beautiful. It was just fun and it was vibrant and I just felt safe there."

She said she paid $565 a month to live there but said she didn't consider that sum to be rent and instead thought of it "more like a contribution for a collective."

Brita said the warehouse was filled with artwork, tapestries, rugs, statues, pianos and RV's that were used as living spaces but in response to a question from one of Almena's lawyers, Tony Serra, she didn't consider it to be a fire trap.

Brita said, "Nobody ever thinks their house is the one that will burn down."

Under questioning by one of the prosecutors, David Lim, Brita admitted the building didn't have a fire alarm handle that someone could have pulled to set off an alarm that would have alerted the people who were at a noisy music party on the building's second floor when the blaze erupted.

She said, "That wasn't part of the original construction."

Brita said, "I just want everyone to know how fast it (the fire) happened. The entire window of opportunity (to get out safely) was less than five minutes."

She said she and others who had been on the first floor when the fire started and were able to get out quickly "didn't realize that nobody on the second floor heard us (warning them to get out) because of the music."