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Oakland Warehouse Fire: Families Face Agonizing Wait as Investigation Continues

Relatives of people still missing after the Oakland warehouse fire killed 36 people continued their agonizing wait as authorities said it could take days to learn the fate of their loved ones.
IMAGE: Nick Walrath
Nick Walrath.

Family members of people still missing after the massive blaze that killed at least 36 people at an Oakland, California, warehouse party continued their agonizing wait Tuesday as authorities said it could take days to learn the fates of their loved ones.

Oakland officials declared a local state of emergency Tuesday, starting the process of applying for state and federal aid.

Alameda County Sheriff's Sgt. J.D. Nelson said at a news conference Tuesday night that 35 of the 36 victims had been identified and that 30 families had been notified. Some of the victims "were both on the ground and what looked to be right next to each other," apparently trying to shield one another from the fire, he said.

Most died from smoke inhalation, he said.

Late Tuesday, the Alameda County Sheriff's Office Coroner's Bureau released the names of nine previously unidentified victims whose families had been notified: Billy Dixon, 35; Johnny Igaz, 34; Ara Jo, 29,; Amanda Kershaw, 34; Griffin Madden, 23; Vanessa Plotkin, 21; Hanna Ruax, 32; Nicole Siegrist, 29; and Alex Vega, 22.

Oakland Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed said searches would continue "until we can definitely say that we have searched that entire structure and there are no more victims within it."

Meanwhile, an undetermined number of other people remain unaccounted for.

The family of Nicholas "Nick" Walrath told NBC News that they assume the worst after Nick texted his partner of five years "Fire" and "I love you" after saying he had attended the party at the warehouse hosted by an art collective.

Walrath, an up-and-coming lawyer, biked everywhere, his family said, and they have seen his blue bike with red wheels locked outside the warehouse.

Nick Walrath.

The Walrath family said authorities told them identification could take days or longer, and the family has provided DNA samples. Walrath's parents, who live in Pittsburgh, flew to Oakland on Saturday when they heard news of the fire, the family said.

"He loved deeply, forgave freely and, above all, was kind to every person whom he came into contact" with, Deborah Walrath said of her son.

"I'm too sad right now to be as angry as I will be," she added.

The family of Amanda Allen, who was considered missing after the fire, told New England Cable News in a statement that authorities had confirmed that Amanda was among the victims.

Amanda Allen with her brother Chris.Courtesy of Chris Allen

"As you can imagine, this is absolutely devastating for us," said Chris Allen, Amanda's brother.

"Amanda was an incredible, beautiful person, daughter, sister and friend," he said. "She was a passionate, artistic, caring soul with an incredible sense of humor and positivity."

Related: What Is the Ghost Ship Collective? Oakland Warehouse in Deadly Fire Held Beauty, Danger

Allen's name has not been officially released by authorities, who have thus far released the names of 17 victims. One victim's name won't be made public because that individual was a minor. Three victims were were from Finland, Korea and Guatemala.

The identified victims were: Em Bohlka, 33, of Oakland; Micah Danemayer, 28, of Oakland; Chelsea Dolan, 33, of San Francisco; Alex Ghassan, 35, of Oakland; Michela Gregory, 20, of South San Francisco; Edmond Lapine, 34, of Oakland; Jennifer Morris, 21, of Foster City, California; Feral Pines, 29, of Berkeley, California; Benjamin Runnels, 32, of Oakland; Jennifer Kiyomi Tanouye, 31, of Oakland; Cash Askew, 22, of Oakland; David Cline, 24, of Oakland; Nick Gomez-Hall, 25, of Coronado, California; Sara Hoda, 30, of Walnut Creek, California; Travis Hough, 35, of Oakland; Donna Kellogg, 32, of Oakland; and Brandon Chase Wittenauer, 32, of Hayward, California.

In an emotional interview with TODAY on Tuesday, warehouse manager Derick Ion Almena defended how the property was used amid concerns that safety pitfalls during his time leasing the building from its owner could have contributed to the tragedy.

Related: Oakland 'Ghost Ship' Sailed Through Regulators' Fingers for Years

"This is profit? The loss of mass life? I'm a father. I lay my three children down there every night," a visibly emotional Almena said, calling himself the "father of this space."

"I didn't do anything ever in my life that would lead me up to this moment. I'm an honorable man. I'm a proud man," he said.

"No, I'm not going to answer these questions on this level. I'd rather get on the floor and be trampled by the parents. I'd rather let them tear at my flesh than answer these ridiculous questions. I'm so sorry, I'm incredibly sorry," he said.

The building's owner, Chor Ng, has said via a family statement: "We are also trying to figure out what's going on like everybody else. We're sorry to hear about the tragedy. Our condolences go out to family and friends."

The Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley on Monday announced a criminal investigation into the incident.

O'Malley said the criminal investigations team would also work to determine whether there could be any criminal liability, and if so, against whom. Charges could range from murder to involuntary manslaughter.