SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) — Derick Almena will face a judge for the first time Wednesday after being charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, one count for each person who was killed in Oakland’s Ghost Ship warehouse fire.

On Dec. 2, 2016, a fire ripped through a warehouse during an unpermitted electronic music party. 36 people were killed in what became the deadliest fire in the city’s history.

The warehouse named ‘Ghost Ship’ had been illegally converted into residences for artists and musicians by 46-year-old Derick Ion Almena. He wasn’t there the night of the fire but he is bearing the responsibility for the deaths along with his right-hand man Max Harris.

On the eve of his preliminary hearing, he spoke to KRON4’s Dan Kerman.

“It’s a fire. They don’t know how it started,” Almena said. “It happened and people got trapped. Now, let’s talk…I want to talk about how people got trapped. You know, like who is the cause of that? It wasn’t me. Those were staircases, and we brought pianos and organs up every day. You keep wanting to talk about this fire…that staircase saved people. If I didn’t put that staircase in, there would have been no way out.”

“And I still had the right to have people over, according to my lease and according to my arrangement with the landlord,” Almena added.

Up to 100 people were at the dance party when the fire started on the first floor. It quickly raged, with smoke billowing into the second level and trapping victims whose only escape route was through the flames.

The victims were overcome by smoke before they could get out of the building.

Former residents called the warehouse a death trap with few exits, piles of driftwood and a labyrinth of electrical cords. Photos of the interior showed a hodgepodge Bohemian scene of Tibetan prayer flags, Christmas lights and scores of wooden statues of Buddha, the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, elephants and dragons that sat atop pianos and turntables.

Sheriff’s officials said rescue crews found victims in unexpected spots – some holding and protecting each other. Some people managed to text loved ones goodbye and “I love you” before they died.

“I think if you’re going to hold me responsible, then I want the fire department, police, the landlords, my kids’ schoolteachers, that had parties in my space that knew we were living there and came and hang out. And one of the schoolteacher’s husbands was a fireman, and he’s like, ‘Great space, man. This is awesome,'” Almena said.

And still, not a day goes by that Almena says he doesn’t think about the friends he lost in the fire–and their families.

“I’m a father of three children,” Almena said. “I would never want this to happen, and I wish I could have been there to save your children to guide them out of that. It wasn’t a horrible place that they were in. It was an amazing place they were in with wonderful artists.”

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