A veteran fire investigator on Thursday said the first sign of trouble at the Ghost Ship warehouse came when two tenants noticed a faint smell of smoke on the second floor. The men were descending a rear staircase when they stopped at a chandelier decked out with Christmas lights and spotted a few tendrils of smoke in the air.
They unplugged the lights and continued down the stairs, but then they “saw a glow” between a trailer parked on the ground floor and the Oakland warehouse’s concrete wall, said Barbara Maxwell, a special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. One of the men grabbed a fire extinguisher while the other returned upstairs to alert people at an electronic-music concert that had drawn dozens of guests.
But the fire extinguisher didn’t work, and by then others smelled smoke and saw the glow of the growing blaze, Maxwell said. People began to flee the warehouse, she said. Then the lights went out, and the warehouse descended into hellish chaos as the flames spread.
Maxwell’s testimony Thursday in the Ghost Ship criminal trial offered another vivid picture of the blaze that raced through a Fruitvale neighborhood warehouse the night of Dec. 2, 2016, and killed 36 people.
The case against defendants Derick Almena, the 49-year-old master tenant of the warehouse, and 29-year-old Max Harris, whom prosecutors describe as Almena’s right-hand man, entered its 15th day of testimony in Alameda County Superior Court Thursday. Both men are charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, one for each person killed in the fire.
Maxwell, in her second day on the stand, explained how ATF investigators attempted to determine the cause of the conflagration and homed in on a makeshift electrical system while sifting through the ashes for evidence. Investigators concluded that a pair of refrigerators, initially thought to have been to blame, were not found to be the cause, she said.
ATF investigators were able to determine that the fire started near the rear of the ground floor of the warehouse, probably a few feet off the ground, Maxwell said, but they were unable to nail down an exact cause, the precise point of origin or any witnesses who saw it start.
“It’s classified as ‘undetermined,’ meaning we were not able to come to a conclusion and rule out certain aspects,” Maxwell said.
On Wednesday, Maxwell testified that investigators found no evidence of an incendiary device or a Molotov cocktail, signs that the fire was intentionally set. Defense attorneys have suggested that a band of arsonists torched the warehouse. Maxwell also said Wednesday that the “extremely high level of fire load” inside the building fueled the intense blaze.
Prosecutors used Maxwell’s testimony Thursday to re-create a timeline assembled from ATF interviews with people who were in the building when the fire began. Despite her calm demeanor, the veteran fire investigator choked up as she described people fleeing from the building and yelling, “Fire! Fire!” The moment prompted Judge Trina Thompson to call a short recess.
Tony Serra, an attorney for Almena, called Maxwell’s testimony “hearsay galore,” and he attempted to have it thrown out. Instead, Thompson reminded jurors they didn’t have to believe testimony and should carefully evaluate witness statements.
Defense attorneys spent the afternoon peppering Maxwell with questions about fire investigation procedures and methods. They also asked why some debris was saved as evidence and some turned over to the warehouse owner. They asked why investigators didn’t test the warehouse for accelerants — flammable materials including gasoline that can be used to intentionally set fires.
The warehouse was filled with accelerants, Maxwell said, from varnishes, polishes and stains in a woodshop, to paints and thinners in artists’ quarters to gasoline inside two RVs parked inside the warehouse. The huge amount of water sprayed on the fire would have washed those chemicals all over the building, she said, rendering the tests meaningless.
“If we had tested and found accelerants,” she said, “it would have had no evidentiary value.”
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