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Families weep as trial opens in California warehouse fire

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — A prosecutor on Tuesday painted an emotional and dramatic picture of three dozen partygoers dying in a fast-moving fire during an unpermitted music concert in a San Francisco Bay Area warehouse more than two years ago, as trial started for two men each charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter.

Alameda County prosecutor Casey Bates recounted for the jury a survivor's harrowing tale of mass panic and chaos as choking smoke, zero visibility and a raging fire engulfed the Oakland warehouse illegally converted into a residence and entertainment venue.

Bates said the survivor plans to testify that he lived by jumping through a second-story window while the majority of attendees couldn't find exits in time. Derick Almena, 49, and Max Harris, 29, have been jailed since their arrest in June 2017. Prosecutors say Almena rented the warehouse and Harris acted as "creative director," helping book concerts and collect rent.

The two defendants are accused of failing to provide adequate safety equipment, exits and signage. A fire alarm went off that night but no one heard it, Bates said, adding that the warehouse lacked sprinklers to slow the blaze so people had time to escape.

"They died because they had no notice, no time and no exits," Bates said. Family members wept and clutched each other as Bates read the name and showed a photo of each victim. In his opening statement, Harris' attorney Curtis Briggs sought to distance his client from Almena and raised the possibility of arson as he tried to shift blame to others.

Federal fire officials could not determine what caused the Dec. 2, 2016, blaze. Briggs said he will call three witnesses who will testify about seeing strangers near the spot where the fire started in the rear of the warehouse. He also downplayed Harris' title of "creative director," telling the jury his client was a hired hand with the responsibilities of a janitor.

Almena's attorney Tony Serra is expected to deliver his opening statement on Wednesday. Prosecutors say the defendants filled the warehouse with highly flammable furniture, art pieces and other knickknacks that made it difficult for visitors to quickly find exits.

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 could face up to 36 years each if convicted on all counts. 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 by victims' families alleging Oakland's fire and building departments failed to inspect the warehouse annually as required. The lawsuits assert that 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 not 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 records found no electrical problems at the warehouse in the 10 years before the fire.

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