‘People want answers:’ Criminal probe of Oakland fire launched as death toll hits 36
The grim search for bodies in the ruins of the Oakland warehouse fire entered its third day Monday as criminal investigators began to examine who is to blame for one of the worst fires in modern California history.
Thirty-six bodies have been recovered, but officials halted recovery operations overnight due to the unstable condition of the warehouse. As of Monday morning, about 70% of the building had been searched, officials said.
“We absolutely believe the number of fire fatalities will increase,” Oakland Fire Battalion Chief Melinda Drayton said Monday.
Alameda County authorities released the names of seven people who died: Cash Askew, 22; David Cline, 23; Travis Hough, 35; and Donna Kellogg, 32, of Oakland; Sara Hoda, 30, of Walnut Creek; Brandon Chase Wittenauer, 32, of Hayward; and Nick Gomez-Hall, 25, of Coronado. The name of one minor was withheld.
Sgt. Ray Kelly, a spokesman for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, said the majority of the victims were in their 20s and 30s, but that some were teenagers.
Kelly said the district attorney’s office has sent a team of criminal investigators to work alongside the sheriff’s arson task force and the Oakland Police Department. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has also sent representatives to help in the investigation, providing resources, forensics and laboratory work.
The investigators are working to uncover any potential criminal activity that may have led to the blaze.
“When you have the amount of victims that we have, you don’t rule anything out,” Kelly told The Times in a telephone interview Sunday night. “People want answers. People want to know that the investigation into this fire is very thorough.”
Officials have said the warehouse had been the subject of a city code enforcement investigation at the time of the fire due to complaints about health and safety issues. Some former residents described it as a cluttered “death trap” lacking fire sprinklers.
With identities of the victims slow to emerge, social media outlets provided the connection for family and friends from around the world, allowing them to share hospital numbers, compile a list of possible victims and express their shock and disbelief.
“Oh my god, Sara Hoda is missing in this fire,” Carol Crewdson wrote about a friend who had texted that she was going to the party and whose truck was found parked outside the venue.
But for some friends and loved ones, the unanswered phone calls, texts and Facebook messages provided the answer they never wanted to hear.
David Gregory said he thought his daughter was staying overnight at her boyfriend’s house when she didn’t come home Friday night. Gregory said he had not known that Michela, a 20-year-old honor roll student at San Francisco State, had gone to a concert at the warehouse with her boyfriend.
Gregory had stopped by the Alameda County sheriff’s station Sunday looking for information and was asked to return with some trace of his daughter’s DNA, such as strands of hair from a comb or brush.
“Try to put yourself in our shoes,” he said. “You know there was a fire. And that she was attending that event. Then you see footage of the building on fire, knowing that everybody in there is being burned alive. It’s the worst way to go … there is no worse way.”
The tragedy took a personal turn for responders when they learned that the son of an Alameda County sheriff’s deputy was among those who died.
“This tragedy has hit very close to home for our agency,” Kelly said. “We’re still dealing with that as we continue to deal with the other victims.”
The lack of a complete list of victims fueled an atmosphere of dread for some.
Cory Grimes said that when she discovered that her roommate, Jennifer Mendiola, had gone to the concert and was missing, she felt as though the wind had been knocked out of her. Grimes said her hands were shaking so badly that she was unable to send messages. She checked a Facebook memorial page that listed Mendiola as a victim. But there was no proof.
“There’s a lot of misinformation right now, and that makes it hurt more,” Grimes said.
The building was leased by a group calling itself the Satya Yuga Collective, managed by Derick Almena. Almena, 46, who lived on the second floor of the warehouse with his wife, considered himself a “realms creator” and built found-object sculptures and stage sets for musical gatherings.
On their social media sites, the couple posted pictures of mannequins hung upside down, colorful tapestries on the floor and wall, Hindu art, furniture from Almena’s travels to Bali and large, exposed wooden beams throughout the building.
On the first floor of the warehouse, a half-dozen RVs had been parked to provide living spaces for other residents. It had become a destination for traveling artists looking for a place to crash in the Bay Area, where affordable digs are notoriously difficult to find.
“It’s a big ripple that’s affected the entire community. It’s a huge tragedy; it’s a huge loss for people in Oakland. And there’s a lot behind it,” said Graham Patzner, who lives with his parents in Oakland and believes his friend, Nicholas Walrath, had attended the show. “Artists are constantly struggling to survive in this city because we’re all getting kicked out.”
The closely knit nature of the community only compounded the tragedy for some.
Isador Vorpahl posted Facebook messages to 10 friends who were missing. “I hope it’s not true, I hope you all are safe and alive,” Vorpahl wrote. “I want you all to know the ways you’ve touched my life.”
Jesse James Alexander, 24, said he believes that three of his friends died in the fire. He said he learned about the blaze on Saturday morning when he received a text from someone making sure he was alive.
“These are all our friends. These are all our family. And they’re all gone,” Alexander wrote.
Richardine Bartee said she has been numb since learning that her friend Alex Ghassan was among the missing. Ghassan had recently moved to Oakland and was the father of two young daughters. On Twitter and Instagram accounts in his name, Ghassan appeared to have posted a video of the event, which he captioned: “Oakland reminds me of #JerseyCity so much at times.”
Facebook also drew worried notes from parents abroad. A panicked parent searched Facebook for answers in Finnish: “Any news of Hanna Ruax,” posted Yrjo Timonen, whose Facebook page lists Helsinki as home. “She is my daughter.”
On Sunday night, Timonen posted, “Ei sanoja. Vain suuri suru.” (“No words. Just a great sorrow.”)
For Grace Lovio, who said she was worried sick about her boyfriend, Jason McCarty, the silence was too great. She had been studying in France and ditched her final exam to fly from Paris to San Francisco.
They had last spoken on Friday, she said, and on Saturday she woke up to find that he had sent her a Facebook message: “Love you a zilliopzazillion,” he wrote.
During a tearful plane ride, she carried with her a diary filled with poetry McCarty had written for her.
On Sunday, she was en route to her father’s home in Concord to meet McCarty’s parents, who are from Texas, for the first time.
“Until we know for sure that he’s gone, I’m still holding on to some hope,” Lovio said. “I’m pretty scared though.”
Other notes were more plaintive.
“I’m a friend of Jason McCarty and am worried sick,” Robin Voss wrote on the Facebook page for the event. “Any news?”
And one was less equivocal.
“Prayers for the family will be greatly appreciated,” Ginger Kellogg Jimenez wrote after being notified that the body of her sister, Donna Kellogg, had been found.
A “beautiful, giggly, wise person who will be very missed,” wrote one of Kellogg’s friends.