Oakland Fire Battalion Chief Defends Response to Ghost Ship Fire

Memorial messages are pinned to a barrier outside the site of the Ghost Ship warehouse on the 1-year anniversary of the fire, on Dec. 2, 2017. (Guy Marzorati/KQED)

Updated 6:55 p.m.

Oakland Fire Department Battalion Chief Heather Mozdean, who was one of the first to arrive at the scene of the deadly 2016 Oakland warehouse fire that killed 36, testified Wednesday, calling the blaze “the most difficult one I’ve ever fought.”

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Mozdean, who was a captain with the Fire Department on the night of the Dec. 2, 2016 blaze that killed one resident and 35 concertgoers, tearfully testified that she had thought about the Department's response “a million times” and said she “couldn’t have done anything differently” or “done anything better.”

“I couldn’t have done anything to change the outcome,” she said, following a question from defense attorney Curtis Briggs regarding video footage from a firefighter's helmet-worn camera shown in court. “It’s been really hard for me.”

Prosecutors say the two defendants charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter each — master tenant Derick Almena and Max Harris, who has been described as a creative director or second-in-command — illegally converted the warehouse known as the Ghost Ship into a residential art space and stuffed it from floor to ceiling with flammable building components, art and other materials and didn't install proper safety measures like fire alarms, sprinklers and well-lit exits.

Mozdean testified that her Station 13 engine crew, which is located within a block of the Ghost Ship, was on the scene even before final dispatch orders were completed.

She described seeing thick gray smoke pushing out through windows with high “volume” and “velocity,” indicating a “significant fire.”

Mozdean said that as she entered the front door of the building behind another crew member, the smoke had reached to the floor and indicated to her that the fire was “not survivable.”

“This is bad. It made the hair on my neck stand up,” she said, following questions from Alameda County Assistant District Attorney Casey Bates.

Mozdean testified that she did not hear or see fire alarms, nor saw any indication of a sprinkler system.

She said she and her crew advanced about 40 to 50 feet into the building and laid down the first fire hose to put water on the blaze.

The prosecution played for the jury helmet-camera footage from another firefighter Mozdean followed into the warehouse that showed mostly black footage with occasional illumination from body-worn LED lights. At one point a glow indicated a fire in the rear of the structure.

Mozdean said she and another crew member began leaving the building after about 39 minutes because one or both of their breathing apparatus alarms had sounded. As they left the building, following the path of the hose they had put down, the fire, which had started in the rear of the building, “ignited overhead and blew out through the front windows.”

Mozdean said after exiting she told the battalion chief that fire crews on the scene should consider a change of strategy.

“None of us want to leave a burning building,” Mozdean said. “It’s not in our culture to admit there is no chance.”

Defense attorney Curtis Briggs asked Mozdean if she believed there were any people still inside the warehouse at the time they had arrived at the blaze. She said that regardless of whether there was one or 36 in the building, they needed to get in quickly.

Defense attorney Tony Serra, who represents Almena, questioned why Mozdean hadn’t asked people gathered outside the warehouse if there were still people inside before she entered the building. He also asked why her fire crew hadn't put up ladders to the second floor to try to rescue people trapped there.

Mozdean said interrogating people outside the warehouse would be a waste of time and that her actions were deliberate: The intent was to get in quickly to look for victims. She said she didn't have indication people were in the building.

In other testimony Wednesday, Oakland Police Officer Jonathan Low testified about body-camera footage he recorded on Jan. 31, 2015. In one video, Low asked Almena if he stayed at the Ghost Ship warehouse, to which Almena replied, “I don’t live here.”

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Another witness who testified Wednesday, Chris Farstad, said he arrived with a friend at about 11 p.m. on the night of the fire to see the performance. He said that sometime after arriving, he heard verbal warnings about a fire and could see that smoke was present but not billowing.

Farstad testified that he ran up to the second floor where performances were set to happen and warned people about the fire. He said he was there for about 15 seconds before fleeing outside through the front door. He said from the time he first became aware of the fire to the time he fled the building was between one to one-and-a-half minutes.

Farstad said he then re-entered the warehouse to try to warn others, but quickly realized it wouldn't be possible to stay "based on the nature of the fire." He described the fire as being "very loud" and like "being inside a giant campfire" with all of the crackling sounds.

Asked by Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Autrey James if he recalled hearing or seeing smoke alarms, Farstad replied he hadn't. When asked if he recalled seeing sprinklers, Farstad said he recalled there being water in the air when he returned to the warehouse the second time, but said it could have been a burst pipe.

During cross-examination, defense attorney Tyler Smith, who represents Harris, asked Farstad if the stairs connecting the first and second floors near the front of the building could be easily seen from the second floor. Farstad said it was a "straight shot" from the concert area to the stairs and it wasn't confusing to get outside through the front door after descending them.

Smith also asked if Farstad could determine the source of the smoke, to which he said it was obviously coming from the back.

Brian Getz, one of the defense attorneys representing Almena, asked Farstad about his efforts after he fled the building. Farstad said he and a few others had also tried to enter through a side entrance but couldn't because of the intensity of the smoke.

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The defense said it plans to call three witnesses to testify that the fire was started by arson and that several people were seen fleeing the building just prior to the start of the fire. They said witnesses will testify there was a scuffle or fight, and that they heard the sound of breaking glass.

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