OAKLAND, Calif.—Investigators honed in on a refrigerator and other electrical appliances as possible causes of the fire at a warehouse in Oakland that killed 36 people, as crews were set to finish their search for bodies.
The death toll in the most lethal building fire in the U.S. in more than a decade was not expected to go higher.
A refrigerator was a potential source of the fire, but it was too soon to say for sure, said Jill Snyder, special agent in charge of the San Francisco office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Snyder said investigators were looking at “anything electrical” on the first floor of the warehouse near the origin of the blaze.
“We have no indication that this was intentionally set,” she said.
Tearful family members visited the scene Tuesday and exchanged hugs hours after the founder of the arts collective that used the warehouse stood near the gutted building and said he was “incredibly sorry.”
Derick Ion Almena said he was at the site to put his face and his body in front of the scene, but he deflected blame for the blaze, saying he signed a lease for the building that “was to city standards supposedly.”
“Everything that I did was to make this a stronger and more beautiful community and to bring people together,” Almena told the “Today Show” on NBC.
The fire broke out during a dance party Friday night in the cluttered warehouse. It 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.
Almena did not respond to emails or calls to phone numbers associated with him by The Associated Press. He told San Jose television station KNTV that he didn’t attend the event Friday night and that he and his wife had decided to stay at a hotel because he was exhausted.
City and state officials fielded years of complaints about dangerous conditions, drugs, neglected children, trash, thefts and squabbles at the warehouse, raising questions about why it wasn’t shut down. The district attorney warned of possible murder charges as she determines whether there were any crimes linked to the blaze.
A building inspector who went to an Oakland warehouse on Nov. 17 after receiving a complaint of illegal interior construction left after being unable to get inside.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said late Tuesday the inspector followed procedure and later sent a request to the owner to gain entry. She did not reveal the outcome of that request.
Under the Oakland city code, building officials and fire marshals need court permission to enter commercial lodgings if the owner or manager refuses access.
Building inspectors typically cannot force entry to a property unless there are pressing circumstances, Schaaf said.
Crews had searched 90 percent of the building known as the “Ghost Ship” for bodies as of Tuesday and were expecting to complete the rest of the search by midnight. Fire officials started knocking down parts of the building that they said were structurally unsound.
Alameda County sheriff’s Sgt. J.D. Nelson said that of the 36 victims found, 35 have been identified and 20 of their families have been notified. Officials are still lacking any type of identity for one person.
Stories of the victims’ last minutes, meanwhile, emerged.
Alameda County sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly said that some of the victims texted relatives, “I’m going to die,” and “I love you.”
Rescue crews found bodies of people “protecting each other, holding each other,” Kelly said.