Witness testifies about managing to escape from Ghost Ship Fire

A musician who was at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland's Fruitvale district last year when a fire broke out that killed 36 people testified today that a large inflatable projector blocked a passageway on the warehouse's second floor.

Aaron Marin, 46, the first witness in the preliminary hearing for Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena, 47, and creative director Max Harris, 27, said that the projector, which was used to show large images during a music party at the warehouse at 1309 31st Avenue on the night of Dec. 2, 2017, made it hard for people to move around the building's second floor.

Marin, who stayed at the warehouse at Almena's invitation for several weeks just before the fire and now lives in Oregon, said the projector, which he described as "a stupid bouncy thing," forced him to go out of his way and step over a few amplifiers and go around a few corners.

Marin initially testified that the projector was blocking one of the warehouse's stairways but he later backed off that statement under cross-examination by attorneys for Almena and Harris, who collectively are represented by a small army of five lawyers.

Marin, who plays bass guitar and other instruments, said he was on the ground floor when the fire broke out so he ran upstairs to the party, where he said he saw flames coming from through the floorboard.

He said someone handed him a bottle of water to help put it out, but the flames were just too big.

Marin said, "My heart just dropped, everything was pure panic, chaos."

He testified, "I tried to run to the warehouse's front stairs (to escape) but there were so many people, about 20 people, and people were coming back up the stairs" because the smoke was thick and they couldn't get out.

Marin said, "I accepted the fact that it was just over for me" but he eventually figured out a way to get to a window on the second floor, where he jumped to the ground, landing on soft mud and avoiding injury.

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

The purpose of their preliminary hearing, which is expected to last five days, is to determine if there's enough evidence for them to stand trial.

Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley said when she filed the charges against Almena and Harris on June 5 that their actions were "reckless" and created a high risk of death for the people who attended the dance party, for which Almena and Harris had failed to get permits from the city of Oakland.

Marin said the warehouse was "a beautiful space where artists and other people would play music together and have an artists' coalition."

Marin said, "It was like walking into a museum. There were so many items that were beautiful."

Jose Avalos, a woodworker who is the second witness in the case, testified he lived at the warehouse for about two and a half years before the deadly fire and described it as "a place where there were caring people and where you could be yourself and express your passions."

Avalos said he paid $565 a month in rent, plus a small amount for utilities, to live at the warehouse and said between 15 and 25 people lived there at various times.

Avalos said he paid his rent to Harris but denied that Harris was second in command to Almena at the warehouse.

Avalos said there weren't any rules at the warehouse but added, "Amazingly we didn't have too many things we had to enforce."

Avalos will continue his testimony when the hearing resumes on Thursday.

The hearing for Almena and Harris was packed with family members and friends of the 36 fire victims as well as a large group of reporters.