published on December 13, 2016 - 9:04 AM
Written by The Business Journal Staff

(AP) — Investigators said Tuesday that they still can’t pinpoint a specific cause in the fire that killed 36 partygoers in an Oakland warehouse.

They focused their investigation on electrical appliances plugged into the rear of the building where the fire started Dec. 2.

The electrical system is still part of the analysis of what sparked the fire, said Jill Snyder, the special agent in charge with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

“At this time, no final determination has been made,” Snyder said.

The ATF has finished collecting evidence, Snyder said. The Oakland Fire Department will prepare a final report for handover to prosecutors.

Prosecutors have warned murder charges are possible as they determine whether crimes are linked to the blaze.

Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley said Tuesday the criminal investigation will be “thorough, methodical and calculated.”

The deadliest building fire in the U.S. in more than a decade broke out during a late-night dance party in the cluttered warehouse. The building had been converted to art 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.

After arriving at the warehouse a day after the fire, ATF investigators quickly ruled out arson and focused their investigation on the electrical system.

City and state officials fielded complaints for years about dangerous conditions, drugs, neglected children, trash, thefts and squabbles at the warehouse, raising questions about why it wasn’t shut down.

Building department inspectors had not set foot in the warehouse for at least 30 years.

A firefighter with knowledge of the situation told The Associated Press last week that the warehouse’s address is not listed an Oakland Fire Department database used to schedule annual inspections and was likely never checked for fire hazards. Oakland fire officials are supposed to annually inspect commercial buildings for fire safety, according to a city website, with only single-family homes and duplexes exempted.

Officials typically pull addresses from a database to request the yearly checks, said the firefighter, who feared retribution for disclosing the information and spoke only on condition of anonymity.

Derick Ion Almena, the sometime photographer who rented the warehouse and sublet it to artists, has not responded to emails or calls by The AP to phone numbers associated with him. In a brief interview with NBC’s “Today” show, Alemena said he didn’t attend the Dec. 2 party and that he is sorry. Alemena said he lived at the warehouse with his wife and three young children, though they were staying at a hotel the night the fire broke out.

The warehouse’s owner, Chor Ng, has not responded to emails and calls made by The AP to phone numbers associated with her. The landlord’s daughter, Eva Ng, told The Los Angeles Times that the Ng family didn’t know people were living in the warehouse in violation of city zoning laws.

The blaze was the nation’s most lethal structure fire since 100 people perished in a Rhode Island bar in 2003.


Associated Press writers Kristen Bender and Ellen Knickmeyer in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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