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Sad news for more families as Oakland fire victims identified

Oakland fire death toll

OAKLAND -- Terry Ewing was among the anxious family and friends who received confirmation Monday of what he already knew in his heart: His girlfriend was among the three dozen killed in the Oakland warehouse fire

Authorities confirmed the death of Ara Jo as the death toll rose to 36. Prosecutors also said Monday that murder charges could result from their investigation into the fire that broke out during an underground dance party at a building known as the “Ghost Ship.”

Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern told The Associated Press he didn’t believe there would be additional bodies found in what is the most lethal building fire in the U.S. in more than a decade.

But he cautioned that it was “impossible to be absolutely positive” until the entire recovery effort is complete. Authorities had gone through about three-quarters of the building by Tuesday afternoon.

The laborious job of digging with shovels and buckets through the debris was suspended overnight because of a dangerously unstable wall. It resumed in the morning, though a rainstorm Tuesday could complicate the effort. 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. 

The Alameda Country district attorney said Monday a criminal investigation into the fire continues, but it’s too early to speculate anything.

Criminal probe underway in Oakland warehouse fire

“People are asking, is this a murder case? My answer is -- [the] range of charges could be murder all the way to involuntary manslaughter,” District Attorney Nancy O’Malley said “We will leave no stone unturned.” 

Seventy-five percent of the building has now been searched, CBS News correspondent David Begnaud reported. For the last 48 hours, recovery workers have used buckets to separate personal possessions and building materials from human remains. No one knows exactly how many people were in the space during the fire.

Ahern said Monday that 33 of the 36 confirmed dead have been identified. Of those, 16 families have been notified, and five notifications are pending. So far, 22 autopsies have been completed. 

Three of the deceased are from outside of the United States, Ahern said, and are from Finland, Korea and Guatemala. 

Oakland Fire Battalion Chief Melinda Drayton said first responders noticed late Sunday night one of the brick walls of the building was leaning in at least a few inches, so they decided to stop their work.

CBS News correspondent Carter Evans reported that the building’s exterior is mostly made of brick but the interior was mostly wood, which is now mostly burned away, leaving the rest of the structure vulnerable.

“We’re finding people throughout the entire square footage of that structure,” Alameda County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly said.

Kelly told reporters Monday some of the victims texted relatives, “I’m going to die,” and “I love you.” Kelly said rescue crews have found bodies of people “protecting each other, holding each other.”

Hundreds of people holding candles honored those who died in the fire at a vigil Monday night in Oakland’s Lake Merritt.

Those in the crowd embracing each other or holding up candles or flowers and saying aloud the names of people they lost in the blaze.

Several people in the crowd have signs offering “free hugs.” 

Video posted from inside shows a party going on just before the fire broke out. The warehouse had been converted into an eclectic live-work space for artists. Not much is left. 

Officials said they came to inspect the property last month.
 
“All that I know is that we were not able to gain access to the interior of the building,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said. 
 
Max Ohr told CBS News he lived at the artists collective for the past two years and helped host Friday’s event, and that he never saw any inspectors visit the place.

“If there were, we would have let them in,” Ohr said.

CBS News reached out to the building’s owner for comment, but have not yet heard back. Her daughter told the Los Angeles Times they believed the building was only being used as an art collective. An Oakland city councilman said the building was never permitted as a residence and was under investigation. Meanwhile, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is at the scene helping with the investigation.

Oakland city councilman Noel Gallo, who lives a block from the warehouse, said he confronted the property’s manager -- Derick Ion Almena -- several times about neighbors’ concerns about trash in the street and in front of the warehouse. Gallo said Almena essentially told authorities to “mind their own business” and appeared resistant to addressing complaints and complying with city codes.

Almena and his partner, Micah Allison, ran the building’s arts colony, called the Satya Yuga collective. They were believed to have been away at the time of the blaze.

Relatives, friends and former colleagues said Almena loved to surround himself with followers, but seemed to care little for their well-being.

Asked late Sunday by San Francisco television station KGO about his thoughts on those killed in the fire, Almena 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 did not respond to emails or calls to phone numbers associated with him by The Associated Press. No one answered a call to a number for Allison. 

Meanwhile, bouquets of sunflowers, single white roses, lilies and carnations were stuck in chain-link fences around the building Monday morning, as votive candles burned on sidewalks and post-it notes paid tribute to the Oakland fire missing and the dead in the most lethal building fire in the U.S. in more than a decade.

For many, the incident has called to mind the Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island in 2003 that killed 100 people, the Kiss nightclub fire in Brazil in 2013 that claimed 246 lives, and last year’s Colectiv nightclub fire in Romania that left 64 people dead. 

In a statement Monday, President Obama called the Oakland fire an “awful tragedy.”

“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 women with their whole futures ahead of them – have tragically lost their lives,” Mr. Obama said.

The president called Oakland “one of the most diverse and creative cities in our country,” and promised that the people touched by the tragedy “ will have the unwavering support of the American people.”

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