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Ghost Ship fire investigator says no sign of arson, cause not determined

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A former top Oakland Fire Department official said on Tuesday that investigators didn’t find any evidence that Molotov cocktails or other explosives were thrown into the Ghost Ship warehouse at the time of a fire that killed 36 people in 2016.

The testimony by former Acting Assistant Fire Marshall Maria Sabatini, who retired last year, undercuts the allegation by defense attorneys for Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena, 49, and creative director Max Harris, 29, that the fire during a music party at the artists’ collective in the 1300 block of 31st Avenue the night of Dec. 2, 2016, was an act of arson.

Defense lawyers have said witnesses say they heard sounds of glass breaking, such as from Molotov cocktails, and Almena and Harris, who face 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, shouldn’t be held criminally liable for an arson they couldn’t have prevented.

But 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 two-story, 10,000-square-foot warehouse didn’t have important safeguards, such as fire extinguishers, smoke alarms and exit signs.

They also say Almena and Harris violated the terms of the warehouse’s lease by turning it into a living space where up to 25 people stayed and hosting underground music parties.

Sabatini said that based on her investigation and witness statements she believes the fire started in a back area of the building’s first floor near two refrigerators, a toaster oven and two trailers that were used as living spaces.

Sabatini testified that there was so much debris from the blaze, which she described as “probably the most complex fire” she’s investigated in her 25-year career, that she and other investigators from the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and other agencies weren’t able to determine its cause.

Defense lawyers for Almena and Harris have said because the fire’s cause wasn’t determined means that arson can’t be ruled out. Sabatini wasn’t asked on Tuesday to speculate about the possible cause of the fire.

But when she testified at the preliminary hearing for Almena and Harris on Dec. 13, 2017, she said she thinks it was caused by some type of an electrical problem.

Sabatini said, “It most likely started with a fault or failure in the electrical system.”

At that hearing, Sabatini said, “There were a tremendous amount of items that were electrical in nature,” such as cooking materials, extension cords and two refrigerators.

On Tuesday, Sabatini testified about a grim diagram of the warehouse showing where the bodies of each of the 36 fire victims were found. She said 29 bodies were found on the first floor of the warehouse and 7 bodies were found on the second floor.

But Sabatini said she believes many of the people who were found on the first floor died on the second floor but wound up on the first floor when parts of the second floor collapsed.

Defense lawyers for Almena and Harris will cross-examine Sabatini on Wednesday.

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