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Emergency declaration sought in Oakland after deadly warehouse fire

Officials in Oakland asked for a declaration of emergency Tuesday, clearing the way for the city to receive federal and state funding to cover the massive response to a warehouse fire that left 36 people dead.

Oakland Fire Department Chief Teresa Deloach Reed said the local state of emergency declaration, which will be taken up for ratification Thursday by the City Council, will also allow businesses affected by fire to obtain reimbursement for lost revenue. 

Addressing reporters on Tuesday evening, Deloach Reed praised fire crews and law enforcement, who have worked around the clock since Friday night’s fire was first reported.

“This has been a heavy labor operation as well as a heavy mental operation,” said Deloach Reed, as Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf nodded in the background.

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Of the 36 people whose bodies have been recovered from the warehouse, all but one person has been identified, according to Alameda County sheriff’s Sgt. J.D. Nelson. The families of 30 victims have been notified.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

Alexandria Corneiro, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, told The Times that a refrigerator and other electrical items inside the so-called Ghost Ship warehouse were being examined as potential ignition sources.

ATF engineers were still inspecting the wreckage from the blaze and trying to determine the source of the fire, Corneiro said.

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“There is no determination of origin or cause,” Deloach Reed said.

Meanwhile, the building manager offered an apology for the blaze but said he could not say whether he should be held accountable.

“Can I just say I’m sorry,” a distraught Derick Almena told the “Today” show in front of the fire-gutted building early Tuesday. “The only reason I’m here is to put my face and body in front.” 

Asked if he should be held accountable for the fire that erupted at an electronic music event late Friday, Almena responded, “What am I gonna say to that? Am I gonna be held accountable? I can barely stand here right now.”

Alameda County sheriff’s Sgt. Ray Kelly told KTVU-TV that some victims, realizing that they were facing death, texted family members to tell them they loved them and to say goodbye.

Kelly said rescue crews found some of the victims “protecting each other, holding each other,” the Associated Press reported.

Authorities have promised a thorough search.

“We are going to continue the investigation,” Oakland police Officer Johnna Watson said. “We are going to continue the process until absolutely every piece of debris is removed from this building, every area has been searched, so families and our community know there is nothing left at this location.”

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A second area in the warehouse had to be stabilized before firefighters could dig through the debris. 

As the search for bodies progressed, pressure was mounting on city officials to explain how they dealt with numerous complaints concerning conditions in the warehouse.

Schaaf, the city’s mayor, released more details Tuesday about complaints the city had received over the years about the warehouse.

She said three complaints had been filed about safety conditions in the warehouse itself, two in 2014 and one in 2015. Additionally the city received 18 complaints about a vacant lot adjoining the warehouse between 2008 and 2016.

Officials have previously said they had an open safety investigation in process at the time of the fire.

Neighbors said they had complained about piles of trash and illegal construction at the warehouse. They said a steady stream of young artists came and went, giving every indication that the building was their home, yet the property’s owner had only a permit for a warehouse, not a residence. Officials had opened an investigation into possible code violations, and an inspector had visited the warehouse but never went inside. 

“The administration has to tell us, well, what happened to the code inspector. Why did he just knock on the door and not pursue?” said City Councilman Noel Gallo, whose district includes the Fruitvale neighborhood where the warehouse was located. “This thing has been going on for 2 1/2 years.”

The city of Oakland has yet to release a full accounting of all city building or fire code inspections and investigations of the warehouse, but city records available online show at least five complaints had been investigated since June 2014.

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The warehouse was a 10,000-square-foot tinderbox with stacks of discarded furniture piled high, a rickety staircase made partly of wooden pallets, and a half-dozen RVs. Officials said they have found no evidence of sprinklers or fire alarms inside the structure, known as the Ghost Ship. And, according to the man who oversaw the building, it was also outfitted with his homemade electrical repairs, for which he did not obtain permits.

Almena told NBC News on Monday that he made those repairs because the landlord refused. 

Chor N. Ng, the warehouse owner, could not be reached for comment. Her daughter, Eva Ng, has previously said the family was unaware people were living there. 

Zac Unger, vice president of the local firefighters union, said the fire marshal’s inspection unit has been understaffed for years. 

“We’re way short, especially in an aging city with a huge amount of building going on,” he said.

Unger said a more aggressive fire marshal’s office would scour the city looking for buildings that had avoided scrutiny in the past, or had other city code violations and might be hazardous. Such tactics could have possibly prevented the tragedy at the warehouse, he said.

“Had a fire inspector walked into that building and seen the conditions in there, they would have shut the place down,” he said.

Alameda County Dist. Atty. Nancy O’Malley said her office is investigating the fire, which torched the building during an unpermitted concert. The probe could result in criminal charges, including murder or manslaughter, she said.

“We owe it to the community and those who perished to be methodical, to be thorough and take the time to look at every potential piece of evidence,” O’Malley said. “We’ll leave no stone unturned. Already people from the community have been reaching out to us about the individuals involved and the scene itself.”

If the fire is determined to be an arson, prosecutors could bring murder or aggravated arson charges — with one count for each person killed.  

Times staff writers Karlamangla and Panzar reported from Oakland; Hamilton and Rocha, from Los Angeles.

ALSO

Warning about plot to blow up Universal City station prompts heightened security across L.A.

Oakland officials fielded multiple complaints about warehouse before deadly fire

The LAPD’s watchdog group is being investigated over a claim that it broke city ethics rules


UPDATES:

6:40 p.m.: This article was updated with information on Oakland officials declaring a state of emergency.

5:45 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Alexandria Corneiro.

2:08 p.m: This article was updated with search information.

8:10 a.m.: This article was updated with details about the investigation.

7:05 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details.

This article was originally published at 5:35 a.m.


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