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Man Says He Thought He Would Die In Oakland Ghost Ship Fire During Trial

OAKLAND (CBS SF) - A man testified on Tuesday that he thought he would die during the 2016 fire at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland that claimed 36 lives but managed to find his way through the darkness to an exit door that led outside.

On the witness stand in the sixth week of the trial of Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena and creative director Max Harris, Jonathan Axtell said, "I had a feeling that I might not make it out."

Axtell had managed to descend from the second floor, where a music party attended by about 30 to 40 people was taking place, to the first floor of the building in the 1300 block of 31st Avenue the night of Dec. 2, 2016.

A curriculum designer, Axtell said when he tried to make his way to the warehouse's front door and put his hands out, "I hit what I thought was the wall and I was thinking that my life was over."

But Axtell, who said the smoke was so thick that he had to hold his breath, said, "I felt the wall move and it turned out to be the door" and it opened and he was able to make it outside safely.

But Axtell said two friends he had met up with at the party, Alex Ghassan, 35, originally from Jersey City, N.J., and Hanna Ruax, 32, of Finland, weren't so lucky, as they both died in the fire.

Axtell said he looked at Ruax right after the fire started.

He said, "I'll never forget—our eyes met and we both knew there was a fire."

Axtell said, "We (he and Ruax) both turned to Alex (Ghassan) and said, 'Come on, let's go, there's a fire' but at first I think Alex was confused" and he didn't get up to leave right away.

Axtell said that when he went downstairs "it was confusing and my footing was very uneven" because the stairs weren't "even stairs like normal stairs" and were "constructed in a makeshift way."

Almena, 49, and Harris, 29, face 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, one for each of the fire victims.

Prosecutors allege that Almena and Harris are criminally responsible for the fire because the people at the party didn't have the time or opportunity to escape the blaze since the warehouse didn't have important safeguards, such as fire extinguishers, smoke alarms and lighted exit signs.

But defense attorneys for Almena and Harris alleged that the fire was an act of arson that the two defendants couldn't have prevented.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson, who is presiding over the case, told jurors she expects that the prosecution will rest on Wednesday morning and the defense will begin presenting its case next week and take three to four weeks. She said she anticipates that closing arguments will be held the second week of July.

Thompson also told jurors that the trial won't meet on the day of a parade in the event that the Golden State Warriors win the NBA championship, as the parade route would be right next to the courthouse where the case is being heard.

Thompson said possible parade dates are June 13, 17 and 19, depending on how many games the NBA finals last.

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