Families weep as trial opens after deadly warehouse fire

OAKLAND, Calif. — For two hours, victims’ families wept and clutched one another Tuesday while a prosecutor opened a criminal trial by showing photos of and methodically naming each of the 36 partygoers who died in a Northern California warehouse fire.

Alameda County deputy district attorney Casey Bates then recounted for jurors the harrowing tales of two survivors who barely escaped the fast-moving fire and choking smoke while panic and indecision seized most of the victims attending an unpermitted music concert in an illegally converted Oakland warehouse.

The operators of the warehouse, Derick Almena and Max Harris, have been in jail since they were each charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter after the December 2016 inferno.

Bates said prosecutors charged the men because they illegally converted a warehouse zoned only for industrial use into a residence and entertainment venue crammed “floor to ceiling with unconventional, flammable materials.”

Bates said the two failed to provide adequate safety equipment, exits and signage. No one heard the signal fire alarm go off that night, Bates said, giving the partygoers no notice a fire had broken out. The warehouse also lacked sprinklers to slow the fast-moving fire and give them time to escape.

“They died because they had no notice, no time and no exits,” Bates said.

He finished by showing jurors text messages sent from two victims moments before they perished.

“I’m going to die now,” Nicole Siegrest wrote her mother.

“I love you,” Nicholas Walrath wrote his girlfriend. “Fire.”

Lawyers for Almena and Harris were scheduled to deliver their opening statements Tuesday afternoon.

Almena, 49, is charged with illegally converting the industrial building into an unlicensed entertainment venue and artist live-work space, while Harris, 29, collected rent and scheduled concerts.

Prosecutors say the pair filled the warehouse with highly flammable furniture, art pieces and other knickknacks that made it difficult for new visitors to quickly find exits during the fast-moving fire on Dec. 2, 2016.

The cause of the blaze has never been determined, which the men’s attorneys have said will be a central argument of their defense.

They both pleaded no contest to 36 counts of manslaughter last summer, but a judge scuttled the plea deal after victims’ families objected to the sentences as too lenient. Almena agreed to take responsibility in exchange for a nine-year sentence, and Harris agreed to a six-year term.

Judge James Cramer said he rejected the deal because he felt Almena did not show remorse. Prosecutors insisted the plea bargains were a package deal, so Cramer reluctantly rejected Harris’ agreement as well, though the judge said he felt Harris was remorseful.

The men face up to 36 years each if convicted on all counts.

The judge has issued an order that prevents attorneys from discussing the case publicly. Before the order, Almena’s attorney, Tony Serra, said he would argue that the fire could have been started by an arsonist or had other causes unrelated to the men’s management of the property.

Harris’ attorney, Curtis Briggs, said before the order that he planned to argue that others share blame for the fire, including the city of Oakland, its fire department and the warehouse’s landlord.

City codes require commercial buildings to be inspected annually, but the fire department and city officials said they found no records of inspectors checking the building.

Almena and Harris also have been named in lawsuits from victims’ families alleging that Oakland’s fire and building departments failed to inspect the warehouse annually as required. The lawsuits say inspectors would have discovered the illegal conversions.

Alex Katz, a spokesman for the city attorney, declined to comment, citing the litigation.

Warehouse owner Chor Ng, who has never been charged, also faces negligence lawsuits from the families. Bates said the type of lease Almena signed made him completely responsible for the building’s maintenance and safety upkeep.

Ng and her attorney, Stephen Dreher, did not return email and phone messages seeking comment.

The lawsuits also claim Pacific Gas & Electric failed to properly monitor, inspect and repair electrical equipment providing power to the warehouse. PG&E said in a statement that it cooperated with the investigation and that a review of its record found no electrical problems at the warehouse in the 10 years before the fire.

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