2 Charged For Deadly Calif. Warehouse Blaze That Killed Pittsburgh Native, 35 Others

OAKLAND, Calif. (KDKA/AP) — A man who authorities say illegally rented out space in an Oakland warehouse that caught fire, killing 36 partygoers, and another man who organized the event were each charged Monday with three dozen counts of involuntary manslaughter.

Derick Almena and Max Harris “knowingly created a fire trap with inadequate means of escape” when they hosted the dance party Dec. 2 in the Ghost Ship warehouse, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley said.

Authorities say the site contained flammable materials, faulty wiring and a blocked exit.

“Their actions amount to disregard for human life,” O’Malley said.

Both men were arrested earlier in the day.

Prosecutors also said Monday that the cause of the deadly blaze will likely never be known because so much evidence was destroyed.

Pittsburgh native Nicholas Walrath, a Taylor Allderdice High School graduate, was among the 36 people killed.

Walrath grew up in Point Breeze. He received a bachelor of science in physics and philosophy from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2007. In 2013, he received a law degree from New York University School of Law.

Officials said he texted his girlfriend from inside the burning warehouse, saying there was a fire and that he loved her.

Court documents show Almena was the primary tenant and rented space to as many as 25 people to live and work in the building licensed only as a warehouse.

Almena allowed Harris to live there, calling him the “creative director,” who was in charge of collecting rent, mediating disputes and dealing with the building owner. Harris is accused of renting the upstairs to a dance party promoter on the night of the fire.

Between November 2013 and December 2016, police showed up at the warehouse multiple times to check on complaints but Almena and Harris often met police outside the warehouse and told officers that no one lived there, records show.

Kyndra Miller and Jeffrey Krasnoff, attorneys who represent Almena, did not immediately return phone messages Monday. It’s not known if Harris is represented by an attorney.

Relatives of half the victims who died in the fire have filed wrongful death lawsuits against Chor Nar Siu Ng, the building’s owner, and Almena, who held the lease. The lawsuits also name Pacific Gas & Electric, alleging the utility should have known the warehouse was wired hazardously.

Almena quickly became the focal point of widespread anger and criticism after the fire. Past residents of the warehouse accused Almena of ignoring hazardous living conditions and putting profits over safety. Visitors described the structure as a warren of scrap wood, sofas, old pianos and snaking electrical cables.

Hours after the fire, Almena posted a comment to his Facebook page that stoked the anger.

“Everything I worked for is gone,” Almena posted.

Almena later said he didn’t know people had died when he posted the comment.

He also lived in the warehouse with his wife and three young children, but was staying the night in a nearby hotel the night of the fire.

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(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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