A deadly inferno that claimed the lives of at least 36 people during an Oakland warehouse party Friday night may result in criminal charges ranging from murder to involuntary manslaughter, the district attorney for Alameda County said Monday afternoon.
Officials still do not know the origin or the cause of the blaze, which engulfed a converted warehouse early last weekend, trapping dozens of young partygoers at a music event.
But Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley told reporters Monday she had “activated a criminal investigations team” that was working with the fire and sheriff’s departments to treat the area as “a potential crime scene.”
“It’s too early to speculate on anything,” O’Malley said at a press conference Monday afternoon. “We owe it to the community, to those who perished, to those who survived to be methodical, to be thorough, and to take the amount of time it takes to look at every piece of potential evidence.”
O’Malley said the investigations team would be working to determine whether there could be any criminal liability attached to the fire, and if so, against whom.
“It’s not clear right now,” she said. “The range of charges could be murder all the way to involuntary manslaughter. Until we know what the evidence shows us, there may be other charges.”
At the press conference Monday, Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern said the death toll stood at 36, with 33 victims having been tentatively identified. Three of those victims were not American, Ahern said, but came from Finland, Korea and Guatemala.
“At this time, we can’t locate any other deceased victims,” Ahern told reporters. “We are not anticipating any more huge numbers.”
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf vowed to stand by the relatives of the deceased.
“Today is the day that two dozen families are going to learn of the loss of a loved one,” Schaaf said. “Today is the day that more than two dozen families are going to start an entirely new life. For them, this is day one.”
Though the key question of what caused the massive fire remains unknown, a growing number of families are at least beginning to get answers about their loved ones. Earlier in the day Monday, just 11 of the 36 bodies recovered had been identified.
The Alameda County Coroner's Bureau asked families to "preserve sources of DNA," including combs and toothbrushes, to "prevent future delays" in the identification process.
Oakland Fire Battalion Chief Melinda Drayton said verifying victims' identities was a painstaking process.
"There's a multi-pronged approach to verify their identification, including ... the DNA and the fingerprinting, because a lot of these young members of our community had ID on them, but we're not able to use that as the pure justification and assume that what we find is reality," Oakland Fire Battalion Chief Melinda Drayton told TODAY on Monday morning.
The victims were packed into a 24-hour artists’ collective for a music event Friday night when the fire ignited. The warehouse was full of art and had been used as a residential property — despite not having permits for people to live there.
The victims included at least one teen. On Sunday night, the City of Oakland released the names of seven victims [PDF link here] and said it has the identity of the eighth but would not release the name because that person is 17 and a minor.
The identified victims were: Cash Askew, 22; David Cline, 24; Nick Gomez-Hall, 25; Sara Hoda, 30; Travis Hough, 35; Donna Kellogg, 32; and Brandon Chase Wittenauer, 32.
And Chelsea Dolan, a 33-year-old electronic musician based in San Francisco, was confirmed dead by her mother on Monday evening.
"Chelsea Faith has always been an extraordinary person, full of exuberant joy," Dolan's mother, Colleen Dolan, told NBC News. "Her personality, intelligence, clothes, music, and kindness were legendary."