Firefighters battle a blaze that swept through a warehouse in Oakland during a concert Friday night. At least nine bodies had been recovered and more fatalities were expected, authorities said.(David Butow / Redux)
A firefighter walks through the burned-out Oakland warehouse on Saturday.(David Butow / For The Times)
Firefighters walk through a debris-strewn warehouse where a fire killed at least nine people in Oakland.(David Butow / For The Times)
Titus Cromwell, 4, places a flower from his family’s garden near the scene of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Daryl Norman, 63, of Oakland stops by the scene of the fire on his way to church in Oakland. “I had to come see for myself,” he said of the 36 victims. “God bless them.”(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
People stand at the perimeter holding flowers while watching crews remove material from what remains of the “Ghostship” warehouse fire, that burned and killed at least 36 people in the Oakland neighborhood of Fruitvale.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
An art installation near the scene of the Ghost Ship fire.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
People pay their respects Dec. 11 near the scene of the warehouse fire.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Mourners observe a moment of silence for the lives lost in the Ghost Ship warehouse fire at the Oakland Museum of California on Friday evening.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles TImes)
ATF agents map the scene of the fire investigation Friday at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland. (Francine Orr/ Los Angeles Times)(Francine Orr / Los Angeles TImes)
Rain falls on the memorial for victims of the Oakland warehouse fire.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles TImes)
Jacob Ramirez, 4, left, looks on while his grandmother Eva Ramirez, 52, consoles Hillary Morse, 22, right, of Oakland near the site of the warehouse fire in Oakland.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Flowers, candles and notes, memorializing those killed and injured in the “Ghostship” warehouse fire that burned and killed at least 36 people in the Oakland neighborhood of Fruitvale.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
A man who identified himself as Ben P. reads cards on Sunday at a memorial near the site of the blaze.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Kristen Grzeca, a music teacher at Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, hugs Monina Sen Cervone, director of world music and dance at the school, on Sunday at a makeshift memorial for victims of the warehouse fire. A 17-year-old victim was one of Grzeca’s students.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
After attending church, Teionna Cunningham of Oakland leaves flowers near the site of the fire.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
A Seventh Day Adventist group prays on Sunday near the scene of the fire on 31st Avenue in Oakland.(David Butow / For The Times)
Genevieve Griesau grieves before a church service at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland. Griesau lost four friends in the fire which broke out during a party Friday night at a two-story warehouse and artists’ studio in Oakland, killing at least nine people.(Francine Orr)
Flowers are left near an Oakland warehouse where a fire broke out during a concert, killing 36 people.(David Butow / For The Times)
Dino Graniello, left, and Jessie Xenakis light candles near the scene of a warehouse fire in Oakland that killed at least two dozen partygoers.(David Butow / For The Times)
People gather near the warehouse on Saturday.(David Butow / Redux / For the Times)
As the death toll in the Oakland warehouse fire climbs, investigators face a daunting task: figuring out how flames swiftly raced through the building and killed so many inside.
Prosecutors face perhaps a weightier burden: assembling a potential case and deciding whether to file criminal charges that can win a conviction.
There is precedent. After flames ripped through a Rhode Island nightclub in 2003, killing 100 people, two nightclub owners and a band’s tour manager were charged with involuntary manslaughter. The owners pleaded no contest and the manager pleaded guilty to the charges.
Jeffrey Pine, the former Rhode Island attorney general who defended one of the nightclub owners, said the massive inferno, like the one in Oakland, added pressure for legal action.
“Any good prosecution office is going to be looking at a number of different possibilities, one of which is, is anyone responsible criminally?” Pine said. “First you must determine what the exact cause and origin of the fire is.”
Alameda County Dist. Atty. Nancy O’Malley has dispatched a team of criminal investigators to the scene of the blaze, according to sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly. The Oakland Police Department and a sheriff’s arson team are assisting, along with representatives from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Jean M. Daly, a former prosecutor who led the arson units for the San Francisco and Los Angeles County district attorney’s offices, said O’Malley made the right decision. The investigators can ensure the proper collection of evidence and help secure search warrants.
“You want to preserve it as a potential criminal investigation scene — get the evidence and it won’t be suppressed,” Daly said.
A potential case would turn on the cause of the fire.
If the fire is determined to be an arson, prosecutors could bring murder or aggravated arson charges — with one count for each person killed.
“Aggravated arson carries a minimum of 10 years in prison to life,” said Lou Shapiro, a Los Angeles defense attorney and former public defender.
To build a case, prosecutors would have to show that building operators were on notice about any potential code violations, building flaws or other legal issues, Daly said.
Shapiro said those involved could also face a reckless fire charge, a misdemeanor count that requires prosecutors to show a defendant was aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk and ignored it.
But the investigation will be arduous and tedious, requiring crews to comb over every portion of the charred wreckage.
“There will be a lot of finger-pointing,” Shapiro said. “It will be very difficult for investigators to figure out who to blame for this.”
Experts agreed that local prosecutors, if they decide to move ahead with a case, should convene a grand jury to avoid the pressure of a very public case.
“It’s not an easy robbery,” Daly said. “Jurors have to understand fire and city code violations.… When you are focused on the gravity of the case and so many lives lost, you don’t want a knee-jerk reaction.”