ABC News(OAKLAND, Calif.) — The rigorous search for bodies in the rubble of a fatal warehouse fire in Oakland, California, concluded Wednesday, with the death toll remaining at 36, police said.
Authorities will begin reopening the street on which the charred structure is located around 3:30 p.m. local time, according to the Oakland Police Department.
Officials found 36 victims inside the large warehouse and most were in their 20s and 30s. So far, 35 of them have been identified and 30 families have been notified. A 17-year-old’s name will not be released, according to the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office Coroner’s Bureau.
Although crews have finished their search for victims, investigators are still working to find the cause of the horrific blaze that broke out on Dec. 2. An official briefed on the investigation told ABC News that a refrigerator is being eyed as the “possible” point of origin.
Investigators are also working to determine if there was criminal liability for the fire and, if so, who was responsible, according to Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley.
As many as 100 people were at the warehouse for a concert party when what authorities described as an “electrical fire” broke out just before midnight on Nov. 2. The venue, known as the “Ghost Ship,” ultimately became a grave for dozens of the young party-goers.
The Oakland Fire Department first responded to reports of a structure fire at the warehouse on 31st Avenue in the East Bay area at around 11:32 p.m. Oakland Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed said the warehouse appeared to function as a residential building that hosted a makeshift artists’ studio, as well as parties like the one that took place that night. Most of the bodies were found on the second floor, which was accessible by a makeshift stairwell assembled with various materials, according to Reed.
Darin Ranelletti, the interim director of the city’s planning and building department, told reporters that the party at the Ghost Ship required a permit, which he said was not obtained. The property is under investigation to determine whether it was used to house people illegally, Ranelletti said.
The power went out inside the building when the fire started and the flames blocked the building’s only exit, making it difficult for people inside to escape, an official briefed on the ongoing investigation told ABC News.
Alameda County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly said some of those trapped upstairs had just enough time to send final text messages to loved ones. Some of these messages read “I’m going to die” and “I love you,” Kelly said.
Survivors of the inferno who spoke to ABC News recalled waking up to “smoke and an entire wall of fire” that was so powerful it opened a window, letting in oxygen that apparently intensified the flames.
The Ghost Ship is purportedly run by a married couple, Derick Ion Almena and Micah Allison, but the building is owned by Chor Nar Siu Ng, a woman who appeared to have little involvement with its use for artists’ studios and as a performance space for musicians.
“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 told ABC affiliate KGO on Sunday.
Almena also appeared to address the fire in a Facebook post early Saturday morning by saying that what he worked for was destroyed, but he failed to elaborate on what work he put into the warehouse prior to the tragedy.
“Confirmed. Everything I worked so hard for is gone. Blessed that my children and Micah were at a hotel safe and sound … it’s as if I have awoken from a dream filled with opulence and hope … to be standing now in poverty of self worth,” Almena wrote.
On Tuesday night, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf declared a local state of emergency to facilitate state and federal aid. City officials also released records on the building’s reported complaints.
The most recent city record on the property is dated just days before the deadly fire. The Nov. 14 notice shows an “investigation pending” for “illegal interior building structure,” an apparent reference to the illegal living spaces constructed inside the warehouse. A day prior to that, the building’s owner was notified of a code violation. The records say “a ton of garbage [is] piling up on the property,” including “hazardous” trash.
Oakland police said that they have responded to numerous calls about the warehouse in the past, but it is unclear how many. It is also unknown whether authorities will hold Almena, Allison or Ng accountable for the deaths in the fire.
The last permitted use of the building was as a warehouse, according to a press release from the City of Oakland. The city said it received complaints of blight and unpermitted interior construction at the building this year on Nov. 13. Days later, a city building inspector visited the property on Nov. 17 and verified the blight complaint, but could not gain access to the building to confirm the other complaint regarding unpermitted construction.
The investigation is ongoing, the city said.
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