Ghost Ship Trial: Witness describes escaping deadly fire


OAKLAND (KRON) — The testimony from a concert-goer describing how he escaped the deadly Ghost Ship Fire angered the mother of one of the victim’s who was in the courtroom.

“Don’t try to blame her,” Colleen Dolan, mother of Ghost Ship victim Chelsea Faith Dolan, said.

“I certainly don’t think that it’s that person’s blame,” Jonathan Axtell, Ghost Ship survivor, said.

“We’re certainly not trying to throw anyone under the bus,” Tyler Smith, defense attorney for Max Harris, said.

Downstairs filled with very thick smoke making it hard to breathe is how prosecution witness Jonathan Axtell describes escaping the deadly fire back on December 2, 2016.

He said he had his hands out in front of him trying to maneuver his way through the darkness.

The trial resumed Tuesday at the Alameda County Superior Court House in Oakland.

The people versus Derick Almena and Max Harris, two co-defendants each facing 36-counts of involuntary manslaughter each for the lives of the people who died that night.

Under cross-examination, Axtell testified that while he was trying to make his way down the stairs a woman passed on the way up, saying there is too much smoke.

“And now Tony Serra is trying to throw her under the bus and say it was her fault because she said the smoke on the stairs is too thick,” Dolan said.

Colleen Dolan says that woman that he described passing him on the stairs is her daughter Chelsea Faith Dolan.

“His client built a firetrap and that firetrap caused that amount of thick, black, toxic smoke, to make her cough so hard that she said the smoke is too thick,” Dolan said.

“Even if they expressed fear going down we all had our own decisions to make in a very difficult moment. The last thing we should ever do in a case like this is blame one of the victims,” Axtell said.

“It was the witness that was saying those things. We are just trying to find out what happened. What occurred. If someone, a survivor like Jonathan Axtell says that he saw someone coming up the stairs telling people not to go down because the smoke is too much, that is an important fact. Six months ago Mrs. Dolan and the family survivors said they wanted to have this trial so they could know what happened. Well their finding out some truths that are not easy to hear,” Smith said.

The judge told the jury that the prosecution will present their final witnesses and rest their case on Wednesday.

KRON4’s Haaziq Maydun and Michelle Kingston attended the trial on Tuesday. Here are notes they took:

Jonathan Axtell escaped the fire 

  • He took the stand today.
  • Haziq was in the courtroom for him, but I understand he mentioned a woman telling people not to go down the stairs because the smoke is too thick, and that statement irritated a victim’s mother in the courtroom.
  • Mom says the defense attorney questioning Axtell, Tony Serra, made it seem as if he was throwing her daughter under the bus, saying it was her fault not everyone made it downstairs.

Whitney Hameth, ATF Investigator

  • Interviewed Max Harris on Dec 7.
  • Today in court we listened to audio recording of that interview: He said he signed paperwork as creative director, helped facilitate vision of the space, mediator of personal conflicts, roles of leadership emerged in the warehouse, he talked about power going out, fuses blowing, no sprinkler system installed, he said he didn’t pay rent and because of that he felt like he had to go above and beyond and if anything had to be done, not matter what time of day, people went to him for help. He also signed an email as “executive director.”

Night of fire:

  • Greeted people, stamped hands, saw orange glow, thinks about 30-60 people were upstairs

Cinda Stoddard, Alameda County District Investigator

  • Searched Max’s phone, emails, and tinder conversations, where he said he manages a warehouse, called it “my” warehouse, manages a “hidden gem.”

>>The latest on the Ghost Ship trial

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