Ghost Ship Trial: Witness Says Ghost Ship Warehouse Fire Started Quickly

A man who served as a doorman at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland's Fruitvale district the night of a fire that killed 36 people testified on Tuesday that the blaze erupted quickly.

Ryan O'Keefe said the warehouse at 1309 31st Ave. "exploded into an inferno" when the fire started late on the night of Dec. 2, 2016, when there was a music party at the warehouse.

O'Keefe, who had to be subpoenaed to come to court, took the witness stand on the second day of testimony in the trial of Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena, 49, and creative director Max Harris, 29, on 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, which is one count for each of the 36 victims.

Alameda County prosecutor Casey Bates alleged in his opening statement that Almena and Harris are criminally liable for the fire because there was no time and no way for the people at the party to escape since the warehouse didn't have important safeguards, such as fire extinguishers, smoke alarms and exit signs.

Bates also said Almena and Harris violated the terms of the warehouse's lease by turning it into a living space and hosting underground music parties there.

But Harris's lead attorney Curtis Briggs and Almena's lawyer Tony Serra alleged in their opening statements that the fire was an act of arson that Harris and Almena couldn't have prevented.

Briggs said witnesses saw people at the party who they didn't recognize and heard popping sounds and glass breaking.

Briggs also said one witness told investigators she saw 7 to 10 Latino males walk by the warehouse while it was burning and heard one of them say, "The way we put that wood in there they'll never come out."

But O'Keefe, who was hired by party promoter Jon Hrabko to collect money from those who attended the event, cast doubt on the defense's claims by saying that he didn't see anyone at the party he didn't recognize.

O'Keefe said he heard popping sounds but he thinks the sounds were from light bulbs popping and not from Molotov cocktails, which defense attorneys said might have been the source.

O'Keefe said the glow of the fire was "orange, yellow and flickering."

He said he was with Harris and two other people at the door when the fire started and they only had time to yell "Fire!" and run out, so there wasn't any time to collect his belongings, such as his wallet or laptop.

Alameda County prosecutors said witness Robert "Jake" Jacobitz, who they had planned to call to the stand this week, died in San Pablo on Sunday afternoon.

Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson, who is presiding over the trial, said Jacobitz's testimony in the preliminary hearing for Almena and Harris in December 2017 will be read into the record.

Bates said in his opening statement that Almena rejected the advice of fellow leaseholder Nicholas Bouchard to hire a licensed electrician to bring the warehouse up to code and instead hired Jacobitz because he didn't have a license and would do the work for a cheaper price.

When Jacobitz testified at the preliminary hearing he described the warehouse as "a death trap" because of all the electrical problems it had.

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