One of two men accused of criminal responsibility in the deaths of 36 people at the Ghost Ship live/work warehouse in Oakland last December says he did not make alterations to the venue that increased dangers at the ill-fated facility. Max Harris denied allegations by local prosecutors that he closed off one of only two exit routes from the second-floor concert stage to the building's exits on the first floor.

The 36 fatalities -- primarily young concertgoers at a late-night electronic music show -- were the result of smoke inhalation after the warehouse, which did not have fire alarms or sprinklers, filled with smoke from a blaze that apparently started on the ground floor.

Oakland fire investigators say damage to the building was so extensive they may never be able to determine the precise cause of the fire.

The first floor of the Ghost Ship was cluttered with makeshift living spaces for some two dozen residents in addition to artist work areas. The extreme clutter, coupled with scores of extension cords that brought power to the work areas, making escape difficult even from the ground floor.

Felony charges

Harris and warehouse master tenant Derick Almena were charged with felony manslaughter earlier this month for each of the 36 people who died. Their pleas to the charges were delayed until July 7 in Alameda County Superior Court in Oakland. They are being held in lieu of $1 million bail at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, Calif.

Harris told the East Bay Times newspaper Thursday that he did not block one of only two staircases from the second-floor concert venue, as had been widely reported. Rather, Harris said, he tried to help people escape the burning warehouse.

But Harris said he was being blamed for something that was not his fault, echoing an assertion made last week by Almena's lead attorney, Tony Serra, at a news conference in San Francisco.

Serra said the criminal charges against Almena and Harris were meant to cover up failings by Oakland building inspectors and fire inspectors.

Mayor responds

But Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf released a statement applauding the charges against the two men. "“They send a clear message: you won’t get away with making a profit by cramming people into dangerous spaces or failing to maintain safe living conditions,” the statement said.

The fire at the Ghost Ship has sent a chill through art communities in the Bay Area and statewide, where dozens of similar unpermitted live/work spaces are thought to be operating. The arrangements are said to be an outgrowth of the region's booming population and soaring real estate prices.