December 6, 2016 at 9:02 AM
OAKLAND, Calif. — As authorities attempt to determine the cause of the massive Friday-night fire that killed at least three dozen people in a warehouse — and consider whether someone should be held criminally liable — investigators continue the grim work of identifying the charred remains of the victims.
The Alameda County Sheriff's Office Coroner's Bureau has identified majority of the 36 victims, with only one who remains unidentified. Officials have released the names of 17 of them following the state's deadliest structure in over a century.
After four straight days of sifting through rubble and debris in the city's Fruitvale neighborhood, officials on Monday night said the warehouse, known as the Oakland Ghost Ship, was "a potential crime scene."
Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley told reporters that murder or involuntary manslaughter charges were possible, though it is too early to say with certainty what kind of criminal charges might be available in the case.
"Right now, we have just started our investigation," she said. "And we owe it to the community, to those who perished in this fire, and those who survived the fire to be methodical, to be thorough, and to take the amount of time it takes to be able to look at every piece of potential evidence. So that if — when we get to that point of making a decision, we know that we're making the right decision, based on the evidence that we have discovered and has been presented."
Authorities were looking into whether there is any criminal liability in the fire, and if so, against whom. That's not clear right now, O'Malley said.
"I know that people have been asking us, is this a murder case, what is it?" she said. "And my answer to you now is the question is whether or not the range of charges could be murder all the way to involuntary manslaughter. And until we know what the evidence shows us, there may be other charges, if the evidence presents that. And we don't know until we finish our investigation."
O'Malley said the county's fire investigation team is now involved, as is her office's criminal investigation team, which includes a deputy district attorney who focuses on real estate and land and property use. Several people have already talked to investigators, she said, and more interviews will be conducted. A hotline was also established for those who might have information on the case.
Investigators will leave "no stone unturned" and are "following up on every single lead," she said.
The search for bodies was halted early Monday morning, after crews noticed that a wall at the back of the building was leaning at an alarming angle. It was resumed shortly after 2 a.m. Tuesday.
Officials said crews have so far searched 85 percent of the building, a warehouse that was converted into an artists collective and exhibition space and that had been investigated by city officials for blight and illegal structures.
Darin White, of the Oakland Fire Department, told reporters Monday that crews were working with agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives on the opposite side of the building to pinpoint areas ATF thinks might be where the fire began.
Although officials now believe that the fire started at the back of the warehouse, significant investigative work is still ahead.
"We are no closer to finding a cause," Melinda Drayton, battalion chief for the Oakland Fire Department, told reporters.
The death toll makes Friday night's fire one of the deadliest in recent U.S. history and the deadliest structure fire in California since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
The massive fire broke out late Friday night, during a concert attended by more than 50 people.
Some of them are still missing.
The coroner's office has, so far, released the names of 17 victims: Cash Askew, 22, David Cline, 24, Travis Hough, 35, and Donna Kellogg, 32, Em Bohlka, 33, Micah Danemayer, 28, Alex Ghassan, 35, Edmund Lapine, 34, Benjamin Runnels, 32, and Jennifer Kiyomi Tanouye, 31, all of Oakland, Calif.; Nick Gomez-Hall, 25, of Coronado, Calif.; Sara Hoda, 30, of Walnut Creek, Calif.; Brandon Chase Wittenauer, 32, of Hayward, Calif.; Chelsea Dolan, 33, of San Francisco; Feral Pines, 29, of Berkeley, Calif.; Michela Gregory, 20, of South San Francisco; and Jennifer Morris, 21, of Foster City, Calif.
The youngest victim identified so far was 17 years old. That person's name was not being released.
Officials said three foreigners from Finland, Korea and Guatemala are also among the victims, many of whom were found in the middle of the building.
On Monday night, hundreds attended a vigil to honor the victims, but it briefly turned confrontational as some people yelled obscenities and booed the city's mayor.
Attendees called on Mayor Libby Schaaf to resign and criticized her for talking about the warehouse's code violations in the immediate aftermath of the fire. Some people shouted "Stop victim blaming!" and "step down!" as Schaaf prepared to speak, NBC News reported.
Speakers at the vigil urged city officials to protect nontraditional warehouse residences and fringe places where struggling artists chased away by the city's skyrocketing housing process have sought shelter, NBC News reported.
President Obama said his administration has made efforts to help local and state officials in the investigation.
"While we still don't know the full toll of this disaster, we do know that an American community has been devastated, and many people — including young men and woman with their whole futures ahead of them — have tragically lost their lives," Obama said in a statement Monday. Oakland, the president said, "is one of the most diverse and creative cities in our country, and as families and residents pull together in the wake of this awful tragedy, they will have the unwavering support of the American people."
Visible police activity was subdued Monday morning after officials halted their search overnight because of the unsafe building conditions. The smell of burned debris no longer lingered, but the sidewalk in front of the building remained walled off by Alameda County Sheriff's Office tents as rescue vehicles packed the parking lot at a neighboring Wendy's.
[‘It was a tinderbox’: Site of Oakland warehouse fire was jammed with flammable objects]
Lining the metal police barricades at a nearby intersection were flower bouquets, candles and a poster that read "We empower our people to heal our hearts." A sparse crowd gathered near the police tape surrounding the area.
The building is owned by Chor Ng and was leased to Derick Almena and his wife, Micah Allison. Almena started an artists collective inside the warehouse, and he and Allison managed the space and allowed artists to live there for a small fee.
Its interior featured a tangled network of antique furniture, artwork, musical instruments, wooden lofts, tapestries and oddities, such as mannequin parts, according to a Tumblr blog that appears to show the building. A makeshift staircase made of wooden pallets led to a second floor.
By the time firefighters arrived at the scene Friday, the second floor had burned down, and the building's roof had collapsed.
The building's instability hampered search efforts over the weekend, and the structure was initially deemed too unsafe for crews to go in. Firefighters moved slowly in the search, walking amid fallen beams and smoldering ruins as they looked for bodies. They undertook their mission at great risk, with ceilings and floors in danger of collapse.
The firefighters ranged in experience from a few months to 30 years, but all were affected by the intensity of the blaze and the piles of bodies they encountered along the way, officials said.
[Death toll rises to 13 in Tennessee wildfires as grim search for survivors continues]
"We had firefighters with basically coveralls and buckets and shovels, taking bits of debris out into the vacant lot, to be then loaded into dump trucks and removed to an off-site location," Drayton said Sunday. "This will be a long and arduous process, but we want to make sure we are respecting the victims, their families and our firefighters' safety to work slowly and carefully through the building."
The blaze began about 11:30 p.m. Friday, as partygoers gathered on the second floor to listen to a band called Golden Donna, which played before a dance floor of about 2,500 square feet. The music event's Facebook page was quickly flooded with inquiries from people looking for their loved ones or offering their assistance to families and friends of the victims.
Questions remain about whether electrical issues, pyrotechnics, or errant candles or cigarettes started the fire. Fire officials said the building did not have sprinklers.
Officer Johnna Watson, spokeswoman for the Oakland Police Department, said that the answers won't come anytime soon and that officials are more focused on keeping families informed. "They want to have answers," she said. "We want to provide answers not only for the families but for our community."
[‘All we could do was stand there’: She watched Oakland’s inferno consume the one she loved the most]
The city investigated the building, located on 31st Avenue near one of East Oakland's main thoroughfares, for possible code violations as early as November.
Officials said they were alerted to possible code violations on Nov. 13, but they could not get inside the structure when they visited four days later. Local news outlets reported that a number of artists used the building as their sleeping quarters as well as studios.
Schaaf, the mayor, said complaints filed as recently as last month cited blight, trash and debris around the building, as well as illegal construction and residential use inside. An inspector who recently visited the warehouse documented the blight outside but was unable to go in. An investigation of possible illegal housing is pending.
Almena told a local ABC affiliate that he's heartbroken over the deaths.
"They're my children," he said. "They're my friends, they're my family, they're my loves, they're my future. What else do I have to say?"
A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Feral Pines with a name provided by the Alameda County Sheriff's Office's Coroner's Bureau.