The two men facing criminal charges connected to last year's fatal fire that claimed 36 lives in an east Oakland warehouse pleaded not guilty Wednesday to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter. Derick Almena, 47, and Max Harris, 27, entered not guilty pleas to all charges stemming from the Dec. 2, 2016, blaze, which destroyed a 10,000-sq.-ft. warehouse on 31st Avenue in the city's Fruitvale district, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The warehouse was being used for live/work residences by some two dozen artists, even though the building -- which called itself Ghost Ship -- did not have city permits allowing habitation.

Unexpected development

In a related development, building owner Chor Ng, who claims she did not know the building was being used for residences, is scheduled to receive a payout of $3 million from fire insurance on the Ghost Ship structure, according to media reports. Ng, who reportedly owns several derelict properties in Oakland, has not commented on the tragedy.

Almena, 47, and Harris, 27, were arrested last summer and remain in custody at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, Calif., on $750,000 bond. Almena was reportedly the building's master tenant and Harris also lived there and was the facility's "creative director."

Night of fire

Almena and Harris were hosting an underground musical performance on the building's second floor on the night of the fire, so the Ghost Ship had dozens of additional occupants when flames erupted.

The fire reportedly burned quickly through the structure, which was filled with makeshift living spaces and did not have lit exit signs or sprinklers. All of the victims, who ranged in age from 17 to 61, died of smoke inhalation, the Chronicle said.

A preliminary hearing to examine evidence in the criminal cases against Almena and Harris was scheduled for Nov.

13. They face up to 39 years in prison if convicted of all charges.

Inspectors from the Oakland Fire Dept. and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives conducted investigations but were unable to determine the immediate cause of the blaze. Prosecutors argued in court this week that Almena and Harris were "reckless" and should be held responsible for the loss of life.

Prosecution unfair?

But defense attorney Curtis Briggs said the prosecution of Almena and Harris was unfair because the building's owner was responsible for the unsafe conditions. “The prosecution has chosen to indict, and charge, two young men who are artists, who are poor, who have no money,” Briggs said. “Trying to hang responsibility over what was a deficient structure — the owner’s responsibility — on Max Harris and Derick Almena, that’s unfair.”

Defense attorneys also blame the city of Oakland for high rent that forces artists like those at Ghost Ship into non-traditional living arrangements, city firefighters for their response to the blaze, and local utility Pacific Gas & Electric Co. for supplying power to the building, the Chronicle said.

Ghost Ship residents reportedly powered their living spaces using dozens of extension cords connected to an incoming line from a neighboring structure, resulting in frequent outages.

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