OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – When Robert Mule saw flames snaking across the back wall of the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland during a December 2016 dance party, he screamed “Fire!” and ran to find a fire extinguisher to put out the blaze.
But in the ensuing chaos, Mule couldn’t remember where the fire extinguisher was. When he finally found it, he couldn’t get it to work. The fire was growing, so he turned around to run out the building’s front door.
“That’s when I saw Pete on the ground,” Mule, a former Ghost Ship resident, testified through tears Monday at the state court trial of two men charged with involuntary manslaughter for the deaths of dozens of people in the warehouse fire.
Mule’s emotional testimony shed light on what happened in the back of the building, where investigators believed the deadly fire started.
Derick Almena, the Ghost Ship’s master tenant, and Max Harris, its purported creative director, each face 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the deaths of concertgoers who perished from smoke inhalation after becoming trapped on the building’s second floor.
According to prosecutors, Almena and Harris failed to install mandatory fire safety upgrades, such as sprinklers and fire exits, before illegally converting the Ghost Ship into an event space and living quarters. The two also allegedly made dangerous, unpermitted alterations to the building’s interior and cluttered it with combustible materials.
As many as 25 people lived in the warehouse at any given time, some in motor homes parked on the warehouse’s first floor.
The defense, however, maintains the fire was an act of arson, allegedly perpetrated by a group of unidentified male interlopers who snuck into the warehouse through a side door and threw Molotov cocktails in the back of the building before fleeing through the same door.
Witnesses for the prosecution, which began presenting its case in state court in Oakland on May 2, have lent little support to the arson theory. One witness scoffed at the idea and told Alameda County prosecutors he knew nearly everyone who attended the party that night.
However, on Monday, Mule said he saw two unidentified white men standing near his living quarters in the back of the building when he noticed the fire there. He said the men were having what seemed like a “quiet conversation,” but also that people familiar with the Ghost Ship knew that area was off-limits to guests.
Asked on cross-examination whether the two men looked startled, Mule replied, “not necessarily.”
“More like, ‘there’s another person,'” he said, adding that the men looked at him as if he was interrupting their conversation.
Former Ghost Ship tenant Jose Avalos also testified Monday. According to Avalos, the Ghost Ship regularly hosted drum circles of 10 to 20 people, including during a three-month period when Almena, his wife Micah Alison and their three children were living elsewhere. Avalos said he had two friends play shows at the Ghost Ship, which prosecutors say regularly hosted concerts.
“You made arrangements for two friends to come in and play for the community?” prosecutor Autrey James asked him.
“Correct,” Avalos replied.
Avalos’ testimony appears to undercut the case against Harris, whom prosecutors charged partly because he produced events at the Ghost Ship as its “creative director.”
Harris’ attorneys claim their client had no managerial role at the Ghost Ship, and they accuse prosecutors of scapegoating both defendants to cover for Oakland police and fire personnel. The attorneys say the authorities visited the warehouse multiple times but failed to shut it down and even condoned the conditions there.
Avalos recounted those visits Monday. Oakland police entered the Ghost Ship during a Halloween party to rescue a person trapped on the roof, he said, and they entered again when called to help evict a difficult tenant. The officers entered the tenant’s living quarters inside the building, Avalos said.
One officer regularly dropped by the Ghost Ship “just to see how everything was working,” Avalos said, and befriended some of the residents, including Almena.
“He would ask, ‘How is my good friend Derick?'” Avalos testified.
Monday’s testimony, dominated by heartrending stories of people who narrowly escaped the fire, did not seem to settle questions of culpability.
“Please help! There’s people up here! People are dying!” former Ghost Ship resident Aaron Marin testified Monday as he recounted pushing open a second-storey window and screaming to the people gathering outside the warehouse as the fire raged.
Marin used an electrical cord to slow his fall out of the window. The cord eventually snapped and he fell into a pile of “soft mud” on the ground, uninjured, he said.
He said he looked up at the window and waited for more people to jump so he could break their fall.
But Marin was the only person who escaped through that window that night, according to prosecutors.
Meanwhile, Mule was still on the first floor, trying to drag Pete – another tenant – to safety. The man was too heavy, and Mule said he didn’t get far before the rear of the warehouse became “all just engulfed in flames,” and a bicycle or tricycle that had been suspended from the ceiling using pulleys had fallen to the floor, blocking their path.
“I let go of Pete then, and ran out to the front,” Mule said.