Search for bodies continues in Oakland fire wreckage as criminal investigation begins

Much of the scorched and nearly collapsing Oakland warehouse where dozens of partygoers were killed Friday night in the deadliest blaze in the city’s recent history has been searched, and authorities said Monday they don’t expect to find many more victims.

But efforts to find out what caused the fire and whether it involved a criminal act are just beginning.

SEE RLEATED: SFSU alum dead in Oakland ‘Ghost Ship’ fire

The emotional fallout from the fatal fire at an Oakland warehouse dubbed the “Ghost Ship” that has thus far killed 36 people continued Monday, as most of the recovered bodies have been identified and more than half of the families who had been waiting for the bad news have been notified.

“At this time we’re not anticipating any more huge numbers,” said Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern, who added it is still possible more victims will be located.

With the search and identification effort winding down, officials are now focusing on what caused the blaze that killed so many people — most in their 20s and 30s, and at least one teenager — at an underground dance party near the intersection of 31 Avenue and International Boulevard.

“We’re going to be looking at everything,” said Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley at a news conference. “Several people have already been interviewed.”

In addition to those interviews, O’Malley said her team is expected to start sifting through the wreckage in hazmat suits as well as following every tip that comes their way.

The focus of that investigation will be whether criminal negligence occurred and who might be responsible, she said. If criminality is discovered, charges could be as serious as murder or manslaughter.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf described the fire as a “potential atrocity” if in fact someone is criminally responsible.

The body count, which had risen daily since the Friday night fire, is not expected to grow much more, said Ahern, who added that most of the victims have been tentatively identified.

Ahern said his office has conducted 22 autopsies at the site and positively identified as many victims and notified their families. Eleven victims have been tentatively identified and three will need scientific identification. Three of the victims were foreigners — one was from Guatemala, another from Korea and the third from Finland.

Only eight of the victims’ names have been released to the public.

In the days after the blaze ripped through the eclectic artist colony and performing space, many people feared their friends or family members might have been inside the buildings, said Ahern. Originally his office’s missing list included 220 people, but many of those feared lost have since been discovered.

Ahern added that his office is still trying to narrow down the list of 50 people who remain missing. He said he does not expect to find most of those missing people inside the building, but rather that the list will be narrowed down as people make contact with their families and friends.

Meanwhile, the search of the destroyed warehouse in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood continued Monday after stalling overnight due to dangerous conditions.

Images of the gutted warehouse released Monday showed the search and clearance work that has been completed as well as the level of devastation inside the once vibrant two-story structure.

The search effort and investigation is ongoing and a crane and other measures have been utilized to shore up dangerous sections of the building that remain to be searched. Hotspots and piles of debris are still covering about 30 percent of the building.

Those who have been identified by Oakland officials are Cash Askew, 22, of Oakland, Calif.; David Cline, 24, of Oakland, Calif.; Nick Gomez-Hall, 25, of Coronado, Calif.; Sara Hoda, 30, of Walnut Creek, Calif.; Travis Hough, 35, of Oakland, Calif.; Donna Kellogg, 32, of Oakland, Calif.; Brandon Chase Wittenauer, 32, of Hayward, Calif. Draven McGill, an 11th grader at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, was identified by San Francisco school officials.

In San Francisco, authorities Monday addressed the fear of a similar fire here.

The San Francisco Fire Department has offered its support and resources to Oakland fire officials investigating the deadly blaze, San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White told reporters at a news conference Monday afternoon.

When asked whether The City is aware of anyone living in warehouses not permitted for residential use, or unregulated parties like the warehouse in Oakland, Hayes-White said fire officials are aware of some 800 legal live/work units in San Francisco. But she said that illegal dwellings only come to her department’s notice when reported.

“If that is occurring, it is illegal, and certainly we want to know about that,” Hayes-White said. “Oftentimes, especially during the holidays, we will deal with crowding issues and over-crowding issues.”

She continued, “We want to make sure that all public events are properly permitted, and if they’re not or if we acknowledge that they’re not, we will take necessary action to make sure that that activity ceases.”

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