A man screamed “People have died, we need help!” to a 911 dispatcher shortly after a fire broke out at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland on Dec. 2, 2016, according to a tape recording played in court on Thursday. The man also screamed “Oh my God!” and “Oh my God, please!” several times in the tape played for jurors in the trial of Ghost Ship warehouse master tenant Derick Almena, 49, and creative director Max Harris, 29.
Almena and Harris are charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, one count for each of the 36 people who died in the fire during a music party at the artists’ collective in the 1300 block of 31st Avenue late on the night of Dec. 2, 2016.
The tape was played during the testimony of Carmen Brito, a schoolteacher who lived at the warehouse for nearly a year before the fire and was one of the first people to see the blaze and call 911. Brito’s 911 call was played in court and she said she recognized the voice of the man who was heard in the other 911 call as that of a man who lived at the warehouse.
Brito said she lived in a loft on the upper part of the first floor of the two-story warehouse and said about 25 people lived there, even though Alameda County prosecutors allege that Almena and Harris never got a permit to allow the 10,000-square-foot space to be used for residential purposes.
Brito said she didn’t attend the music party, which was held on the second floor, and took a nap at about 10 p.m. that night. She said she was woken by the smell of smoke and “I couldn’t breathe.” Brito said she yelled “Help!” and “Fire!” and grabbed some warm clothes and got out of the warehouse in about a minute. She said as she was leaving she also heard Harris, who had been at the building’s first floor entrance, yell “Fire!”
“It was like a shock wave. I could see them (other people at the warehouse) react (to Harris yelling ‘Fire!’) and it was something that hit all of us. A shudder went through the crowd.”Ghost Ship resident Carmen Brito
Alameda County prosecutors allege that Almena and Harris are criminally responsible 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.
But Brito said she felt safe at the warehouse, especially because there was a fire station only a block away and social workers came inside several times to make sure that Almena’s three children, who lived with him at the warehouse, were safe.
Brito found out about the warehouse through an ad on Craig’s List and said the first time she went there, “It was like stepping into a new world.” Brito said, “It was the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen, and I’ve traveled around the world.”
Fire victim family members who were in court on Thursday reacted emotionally to the 911 tapes that were played for jurors. The family members wiped away tears while they were in the courtroom and some of them continued to cry and sat on a hallway floor outside court during an afternoon break.
The trial will resume on Tuesday morning.