Lawyer: Deadly Oakland Fire Wrongly Blamed on Suspect

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Lawyers for the operator of an Oakland warehouse where a fire killed 36 people blamed a host of potential culprits Friday for the nation’s deadliest structure blaze in more than 14 years, including utility officials and firefighters.

The attorneys said an electrical line was too small to supply the warehouse and that firefighters erred by punching a hole in the roof of the structure shortly after arriving that drew air into the building and fanned the flames. They say firefighters should have instead cut a hole into a wall.

“There could have been more survivors,” attorney Jeffrey Krasnoff said.

Karen Boyd, a spokeswoman for the city of Oakland, did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.

At a news conference Friday, attorney Tony Serra also said suspect Derick Almena has suffered a near mental breakdown since the fire.

“It has created a sadness … an almost total destruction of his mental stability,” Serra said.

Serra is one of three attorneys representing Almena who they describe as deeply distraught.

Authorities say Almena, 47, rented the warehouse and illegally converted it into low-cost housing for artists and an entertainment venue.

Almena and Max Harris, 27, were arrested Monday after a six-month investigation of the Dec. 2 fire that occurred during an unpermitted electronic music concert at the building known as the Ghost Ship.

Prosecutors say the site was cluttered with highly flammable material and the suspects failed to provide adequate fire safety systems.

Both were charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter.

Almena rented the warehouse as an industrial space in November 2013 and lived there with his wife Micah Allison and their three young children. They were staying at a hotel on the night of the blaze.

Allison spoke publicly for the first time Friday, defending her husband.

“We would never have lived in a place we thought was unsafe,” Allison said. “We were not there the night of the fire on Dec. 2 because it was going to be a loud event, not because we were afraid of the possibility on anything going wrong.”

She said her husband only wanted to provide affordable and safe housing to financially struggling artists in the expensive San Francisco Bay Area.

“We are all grieving,” she said. “My husband is a good man. Max Harris is a good man. They are not greedy. They are not selfish or reckless. I just hope that everyone could have a little bit of compassion for everyone involved.”

Officials have said the cause of the fire might never be known because of all the destruction.

However, defense attorney Jeffrey Krasnoff said the main PG&E electrical line that supplied power to the warehouse was too small for its needs and could have overloaded, potentially starting the fire.

“We’ve seen no evidence to date that would lead us to believe that our facilities were the cause of the fire,” said PG&E spokeswoman Tamar Sarkissian. She said the utility had no reports of trouble with its equipment at the warehouse and is cooperating with the investigation.

Almena and Harris could each face 49 years in prison if convicted on all counts. Neither has entered a plea. Both men remain jailed on bail of nearly $1.1 million.

Jail records don’t list a lawyer for Harris.