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Report details death, panic in Ghost Ship warehouse fire

Report details death, panic in Ghost Ship warehouse fire
Firefighters battle the blaze that killed 36 people attending a concert at a warehouse in Oakland. (David Butow / Redux)

Voices screamed out, "Fire!" Suddenly, the lights went out and it got harder to breathe. Many of the 36 people killed in the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland huddled together in the dark, and that's where they died of smoke inhalation.

Some of the young partygoers were found wrapped together in rugs.

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More than six months after the Dec. 2 blaze at the warehouse that authorities said was illegally converted into living quarters, the Oakland Fire Department has released a 50-page report filled with harrowing details of death and panic as the flames and smoke spread.

The report contains many previously unknown details about the nation's deadliest structure fire in more than 14 years, and says investigators could not determine the cause of the blaze due to extensive fire damage.

The report, released late Monday, is the first official account of what survivors and witnesses told investigators, and includes details of how some 52 firefighters battled the blaze at the two-story warehouse, an artist collective that was throwing an electronic music party that night.

The party started at 9 p.m. and was crowded by about 11 p.m., tenant and survivor Bob Mule told investigators.

A short time later, Mule saw flames. He started yelling for people to get out of the building, the report said. It quoted another survivor, Chris Nechodom, who heard people yelling there was a fire and fled.

Aaron Marin, a house guest staying in a studio, was upstairs when he saw flames coming from under the floor near the DJ's booth. People started down the staircase but returned because the ramshackle stairwell of planks and wooden pallets was not safe.

"At that point the lights went out. Marin stated the smoke was much thicker and it was getting harder to breath," the report said.

Marin told investigators he knew of a window and felt his way to it in the darkness. He climbed outside, hung from the window and dropped one story to the ground. Marin was one of the lucky few who escaped; no one else made it out that window.

The report gives a vivid description of the warehouse's interior, a maze-like labyrinth with makeshift hallways and cubicle-like live-work spaces constructed not of walls but of "pianos, organs, windows, wood benches, lumber" and innumerable other scavenged items that blocked possible exits and fueled the blaze.

The warehouse had no sprinklers and an ad hoc electrical system of power strips and extension cords that drew "electricity from the body shop next door," according to Max Harris, the self-described "creative director" and second-in-command of the Ghost Ship.

Harris, 27, and Derick Almena, 47, who leased the warehouse from the owner, were charged this month with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter.

Prosecutors say the men knowingly created a fire trap in a building not licensed for housing or entertainment.

Lawyers for the men say they are scapegoats and that the building's owner, Chor Ng, who denies knowledge that people lived in the warehouse, should face criminal charges. Harris and Almena have not yet entered pleas to the charges.

One victim was found just 10 feet from the front door, buried under debris, the report said. Seven bodies were found clustered near a couch upstairs.

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Eight others that were found wrapped together in a rug and next to it on the first floor apparently had tumbled from the second floor when it collapsed in the inferno.

Another three were found wrapped in another large rug and had fallen when the floor collapsed, landing on top of a motor home parked inside the warehouse, the report said.

Most of those who died were trapped upstairs, where the party was underway. It took firefighters days to dig all of the bodies out.

All 36 died of smoke inhalation, their lungs clogged with smoke and soot, according to autopsy information in the report provided by the coroner's office.

The "Origin and Cause Report" concluded that the fire's cause was undetermined.

Investigators traced the origin of the fire to a back corner of the warehouse's ground floor but could not pinpoint where it started because the fire caused so much destruction.

Possible causes not ruled out by investigators included electrical failure, candles, incense, smoking material or an open flame, the report said.

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