Ghost Ship Trial: Defense Accuses Fire Officials of Shielding City from Civil Liability

Friends of the victims of the Ghost Ship fire pay tribute at a memorial marking the one year anniversary of the fire on Dec. 2, 2017. (Guy Marzorati/KQED)

Defense attorney Tony Serra on Thursday accused fire officials of attempting to shield the City of Oakland from liability in a civil lawsuit proceeding alongside the criminal case against Max Harris and his client Derick Almena for their roles in the Dec. 2, 2016 Ghost Ship warehouse fire that killed 36.

James Bowron, the Oakland Fire Department battalion chief who commanded firefighters the night of the blaze, testified that in hindsight he would not have done anything differently to save lives.

"Fire doubles in size every second it's left unchecked," Bowron said, stressing that he stands by his decision to direct firefighters to attack the fire from the front door and open a vent on the roof of the building.

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But Serra, who represents Almena, questioned Bowron's approach during cross examination, suggesting the battalion chief should've prioritized rescuing show-goers trapped inside.

Serra asked, "Isn't it a fact that the largest motive you have is to protect the City of Oakland from civil liability?"

"That's not why I'm here," Bowron said.

Bowron said that although he initially believed the warehouse had only one floor and was not aware of a side exit, receiving the information earlier would not have changed his firefighting strategy. Because the second floor was more of a storage loft, not a sealed floor, the show-goers were "suspended in the worst possible place to be in a fire," Bowron said. "There was no safe space on the second floor."

Upon his arrival, Bowron said a bystander told him there were people trapped inside. But by that point, there was no "survivability," he said, adding that he worried some of his own firefighters had perished.

Bowron's colleague, fire department Battalion Chief Heather Mozdean, was one of the first to arrive at the scene and got there before Bowron. She testified on Wednesday that the blaze was "the most difficult one I’ve ever fought."

Prosecutors say the codefendants each charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter — master tenant Almena and Harris, who has been called creative director or second in command — ran the warehouse known as Ghost Ship as an illegal residence and event space with a willful disregard for safety. The defense says their clients are being scapegoated, assigning blame instead to city officials and the landlord.

The civil lawsuit Serra referred to involves dozens of plaintiffs and defendants, including property owners the Ng family, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and the City of Oakland. The assertion that firefighters' performance couldn't have been better, Serra told reporters after trial, is a "bunch of bologna."

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Zac Unger, president of the Oakland firefighters union, said in a statement that "despite the numerous, speculative attacks...Local 55 remains incredibly proud of the brave men and women of the Oakland Fire Department and of the job they do every day as well as on the night of the Ghost Ship Fire."

Current and former Oakland police officers also testified Thursday about being called to the Ghost Ship warehouse prior to the fire. Officer Jonathan Low, in testimony continuing from Wednesday, said he visited the warehouse at least four times, once for a welfare check on Almena's children. After observing the children and a stocked refrigerator upstairs, he said he left "satisfied" with their condition.

During cross-examination by Almena's co-counsel Brian Getz, Low said he did not know how to cite someone for living in a warehouse illegally, and that he'd never done so. Getz asked, "Do you even know if living in a warehouse illegally is an infraction or a misdemeanor?" Low responded that he did not know.

During cross-examination by Harris' defense attorney Curtis Briggs, Low said that he "might have had some impression" that people lived in Ghost Ship, although Almena told him residential use was prohibited.

The line of questioning reflected the defense attorneys' arguments that officials in Oakland's building, police and fire departments ignored dangerous conditions at the warehouse. The defense has also said the fire broke out not because of their clients' actions or neglect, but due to a retaliatory act of arson.

Retired Oakland police officer Tye Kushner recalled on the witness stand visiting the warehouse on Dec. 3, 2014. Body camera footage of the encounter played for jurors showed Almena telling Kushner that no one lived inside the warehouse.

"You've got some cool stuff in here," Kushner said to Almena in the video.

Kushner also said that in 27 years as an Oakland police officer, he never cited someone for illegally living in a warehouse.

Ivan Mairesse, the only civilian witness to testify Thursday, recounted from the stand his escape from the warehouse fire. He attended the show to see Golden Donna, an electronic music act by his college friend Joel Shanahan, and within an hour of arriving upstairs detected a "smoky, firecracker smell" and saw smoke seeping up through the floor.

"There was a clear sense of panic," he said.

When Mairesse and his friends approached the staircase, the lights went out. He couldn't recall seeing exit signs, alarms, sprinklers or any form of emergency illumination. "That's when I remember the smoke getting thicker and darker very quickly," he said. "It was essentially pitch black."

After maneuvering down the staircase, beckoned by someone shouting, there was a burst of air. "I felt like I could breathe again," he said.

The prosecution will continue calling witnesses Monday.