What We Know So Far About the Oakland Warehouse Fire Investigation

Oakland officials are grappling to understand the blaze, which took 36 lives.

ByABC News
December 7, 2016, 12:27 AM

— -- Investigators are working to determine whether there was criminal liability in the horrific blaze in Oakland, California, that claimed the lives of 36 men and women last Friday and, if so, who was responsible.

The latest clues point to a refrigerator as a "possible" source of the blaze, an official briefed on the probe told ABC News on Tuesday.

Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley has said that if charges are brought, they could range from murder to involuntary manslaughter, but there is no guarantee that this will happen.

So far, 35 of the 36 victims have been identified, and 30 families have been notified. A 17-year-old's name will not be released.

Here is what we know about the ongoing investigation into the fire:

PHOTO: A firefighter climbs down a ladder at the scene of a fire that killed at least nine people on 31st St., Dec. 3, 2016, in Oakland, California.
A firefighter climbs down a ladder at the scene of a fire that killed at least nine people on 31st St., Dec. 3, 2016, in Oakland, California. The death toll from the fire in a warehouse hosting a late-night dance party climbed to 33, including some teenagers, on Dec. 4 as firefighters combed through rubble for others believed to still be missing.

The Ghost Ship

The Ghost Ship, as some called the warehouse, was purportedly run by a married couple, Derick Ion Almena and Micah Allison, but owned by Chor Nar Siu Ng, a woman who appeared to have little involvement with its use as a place for artists' studios and a performance space for musicians. Neighbors and occupants of the warehouse told The Associated Press that Almena, who often went by the name Derick Ion, illegally carved the warehouse into what it became before the fire.

On Tuesday, Oakland officials released the city's records on the building, detailing several complaints made by city inspectors and neighbors in recent years.

The most recent city record on the property dates from just days before the 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.

Days before 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 responded to numerous calls about the warehouse in the past, but it is unclear how many and what they concerned. It is also unknown whether Almena, Allison or Ng will be held accountable by authorities for the death toll from the fire.

The last permitted use of the building was as a warehouse, according to the city, which said it received complaints of blight and unpermitted interior construction at the building on Nov. 13, 2016. On Nov. 17 a city building inspector visited the property and verified the blight complaint but could not gain access to the building to confirm the complaint regarding unpermitted construction.

ABC affiliate KGO-TV reached out to Almena for comment on Sunday.

"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?" he told the station.

Almena appeared to address the fire in a Facebook post early Saturday morning by saying that what he worked for was destroyed but didn't elaborate on what work he had put into the warehouse.

"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," he wrote.

    A 'Wall of Fire'

    As many as 100 people were at the Ghost Ship for a party on Friday night when what authorities described as an electrical fire broke out just before midnight.

    Electrical fires can be caused by any number of problems, from faulty electrical sockets to damaged wiring, but no specifics have emerged to determine what may have sparked it. No allegations of arson have surfaced in the days since the doomed party, but that possibility hasn't been ruled out.

    Darin Ranelletti, the interim director of the city planning and building department, told the press that the party required a permit, which he said was not obtained.

    Survivors of the inferno recall 15 feet of flames and billowing smoke so powerful that it opened a window, letting in oxygen that apparently intensified the blaze.

    Nikki Kelber, a resident of the warehouse, which housed artist studios, said she was asleep Friday night and "woke up to smoke and an entire wall of fire."

    She was one of the lucky ones and made it out alive. The victims of the fire died of smoke inhalation, according to authorities.

    Some victims texted messages to relatives, including "I'm going to die" and "I love you," according to Alameda County Sheriff's Office spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly.

    PHOTO: Recovery teams examine the charred remains of the two-story converted warehouse that caught fire killing dozens in Oakland, California, Dec. 4, 2016.
    Recovery teams examine the charred remains of the two-story converted warehouse that caught fire killing dozens in Oakland, California, Dec. 4, 2016.

    A Housing Crisis

    Ranelletti told the press that the warehouse is under investigation to determine whether it was used to house people illegally.

    The Bay Area has among the highest costs of living in the U.S., and housing costs and a lack of availability are among the chief concerns of those living in the region, according to a study by the Bay Area Council, a business-sponsored public policy advocacy group.

    Oakland's warehouses have become hubs for artists and musicians in recent years, according to residents who spoke to ABC News, largely because they can't afford to live elsewhere.

    Carol Crewdson, a friend of Sara Hoda, a Montessori schoolteacher who was one of the victims of the Ghost Ship fire, remembered her fondly in a conversation with ABC News. Crewdson frequently touched on the crisis of space that affects many of the Bay Area's poor and young. She said she lived with Hoda in a house where people occupied spare bathrooms as bedrooms and some lived on the lawn.

    Crewdson described some of Oakland's buildings as almost like shelters, where people live because of a lack of alternatives.

    "There were a lot of people in tough situations just trying to make ends meet," she said of the space she shared with her late friend.

    It is unclear at this time how many people were living at the Ghost Ship under illegal or unsafe conditions until Friday night.