OAKLAND, Calif. (CBSNewYork/AP) — The death toll in the Oakland warehouse fire climbed to 36 Monday with more bodies still feared buried in the blackened ruins, and families anxiously awaited word of their missing loved ones.
Prosecutors say they are investigating the Friday blaze, and murder charges are possible.
Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley said Monday her office has just started its probe and has not yet determined whether a crime even occurred. But she said charges could range from murder to involuntary manslaughter.
Investigators with the district attorney’s office are making sure crews removing debris don’t jeopardize any evidence in a potential criminal investigation.
The laborious job of digging with shovels and buckets was suspended overnight because of a dangerously unstable wall but resumed mid-morning.
“For us as firefighters, working under a wobbly, potentially collapsing exterior wall is extremely dangerous,” said Oakland Battalion Fire Chief Melinda Drayton.
Officials said 70 percent of the building had been searched.
Flames tore through the building, known as the “Ghost Ship,” during a dance party Friday night. The cluttered warehouse had been converted to artists’ studios and illegal living spaces, and former denizens said it was a death trap of piled wood, furniture, snaking electrical cords and only two exits.
It was the most lethal building fire in the U.S. in more than a decade.
Authorities have identified at least 11 of the bodies but withheld some of the names. Those whose identities were yet to be released included a 17-year-old and the son of a sheriff’s deputy, authorities said.
Alameda County sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly said officials expect the death toll to rise, but he wouldn’t speculate how high it might go.
Investigators said they believe they have located the section of the building where the fire started, but the cause remains unknown.
Also, the district attorney’s sent a team to search for evidence of a crime in the warehouse, which was already under investigation by the city for possible code violations.
The space had a permit to operate as a warehouse only. Neighbors had complained of people living there illegally, trash piling up and other unsafe conditions.
A growing memorial of flowers, candles and notes paid tribute to the missing and the dead.
Carmen Brito lived in the warehouse. She described the chaos of trying to get out when flames erupted to CBS2’s Danielle Nottingham.
“Shouting for help, people started to run towards the fire, they were grabbing fire extinguishers to put it out,” she said. “Nobody knew what was going on.”
Kai Thomas and a group of red-eyed classmates from an arts high school in San Francisco pressed against police tape Sunday near the street corner. They lost a friend in the blaze.
Three of the boys had been in the cramped and dark building, Thomas said, but one got separated from them just before someone yelled, “Fire!”
“It was just really smoky and hard to see,” said Thomas, who wasn’t there but recounted what he had been told by two others who didn’t want to speak. “They jumped off the second-floor balcony and ran out.”
The boys waited for their 17-year-old friend for more than three hours, but he never emerged.
Outside a sheriff’s office where people gathered for word of their loved ones, Yuri Kundin said he was hoping for good news about two of his friends, Alex Ghassan and Hanna Henriikka Ruax, who was from Finland.
One of the many notes left on a sidewalk around the corner from the remains of the warehouse read: “Praying for you. … Hope you’re still here.”
The couple who operated the building’s arts colony, called the Satya Yuga collective, were identified as Derick Ion Almena and Micah Allison. They were believed to have been away at the time of the blaze.
Almena had leased the property from its owner and then rented out living space, said Danielle Boudreaux, a former friend of the couple. They held regular concerts and dance parties, like the one Friday, to make money, Boudreaux said.
Almena did not immediately respond to emails or calls to numbers associated with him. No one answered a call to a number for Allison.
San Francisco TV station KGO tracked Almena down Sunday at a hotel in Oakland. Asked if he had anything to say to the families of those who were killed, he said: “They’re my children. They’re my friends, they’re my family, they’re my loves, they’re my future. What else do I have to say?”
Almena and Allison had a troubled relationship, said Allison’s father, Michael Allison of Portland, Oregon. He and other family members persuaded his daughter to go to a drug rehabilitation center in 2015, but Almena talked his way into the clinic and got Micah to leave with him, Michael Allison said.
Shelley Mack was drawn to the warehouse two years ago by the promise of living among artists and paying a reasonable amount in an area where the tech boom has created a housing shortage and driven up rents. She left after a few months.
“Some people were happy to have a roof over their head even though there was no heat or no place to eat or that it was filthy and infested,” Mack said.
“You just get sucked in because it seems like it’s this nice place and this artistic community and they talk a good game. There are people there that wanted to be there and believed in it. And I think I did too for a little bit. And then I afterward, I was like, um, no.”
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