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Ghost Ship Tenant Describes 'Wall Of Fire' That Roared Through Oakland Warehouse

OAKLAND (CBS SF) -- A woman who lived at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland described a "wall of fire" that quickly grew in size and before she escaped to safety, during the second day of testimony Tuesday in the trial of two men accused in the deadly inferno of December 2016.

Derick Almena, 49, and creative director Max Harris, 29, have been charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the fire during a music party at the warehouse at 1309 31st Ave. on the night of Dec. 2, 2016.

A jury of nine women and three men will determine their fate during the trial that was expected to take several months. Testimony resumed Tuesday.

Elizabeth Mazzola, who now lives in Berkeley, told jurors she moved into the warehouse at 1309 31st Ave. about a month before the fire and thought it was safe to live there.

However, under questioning by Alameda County prosecutor Autrey James, Mazzola said that after the fire broke out she wasn't aware of any fire sprinklers, fire alarms and smoke alarms and isn't sure if there were any exit signs.

Mazzola said she was one of about 10 people who lived on the first floor of the warehouse at the time of the fire and estimated that about seven people lived on the building's second floor. The building was not permitted for residential use.

She said she was in the trailer where she lived on the first floor when she heard fellow resident Carmen Brito, who also survived the blaze, yell for help.

"I heard a calling for 'help'," she testified. "(I) looked out of my unit and I saw what appeared to be a wall of fire."

When asked about how quickly the fire grew into a deadly inferno -- Mazzola replied: ""It was all very fast."

Rodney Griffin, a shop foreman who was a former friend of Almena, was brought in by Almena to look at the warehouse and to help bring it up to building code before anyone had moved in.

During Griffin's testimony on Tuesday, he said Almena told him that he would build stairs in the building out of old pallets to save cost. Griffin said he then told Almeda that doing so wasn't safe nor was it up to code.

When the defense cross-examined Griffin, he told the court he had gone to the fire station near the Ghost Ship warehouse two years ago and asked to speak to the fire chief. He wanted them to know the condition of the warehouse.

The fire chief told him they were aware of the building and have had several complaints about it. "I felt brushed off. They acted like everything was under control," Griffin said.

Another witness on Tuesday was Ryan O'Keefe, a man who volunteered to greet people at the door on the night of the fire. He described how the fire started: as a small glow in the back of the building that exploded into an inferno within five seconds, spreading across the ceiling.

O'Keefe escaped with Max Harris.

Testimony began on Monday with emotional testimony from a victim's mother, who told the jury's about receiving a text from her daughter saying "I'm going to die" as the flames neared.

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.\

Earlier on Monday, Nicholas Bouchard, 27, testified that he called a meeting several weeks after he and Almena signed a lease for the warehouse to address his concern that they were violating the terms of the lease by allowing people to live there.

Bouchard said he also was concerned that there were safety issues because the building lacked adequate smoke alarms and fire extinguishers and there were electrical and water issues as well.

But Bouchard said Almena arrived late for the meeting and that when he he finally showed up "he scoffed and laughed at us" and looked at his cellphone and Facebook.

Bouchard lived with Almena and a few others at the warehouse for a few weeks after they signed the lease, but moved out because of his concerns.

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