Refrigerator looked at as possible source of deadly California warehouse fire

OAKLAND, Calif. — As crews searched the Oakland warehouse for more bodies, the founder of the arts collective stood near the gutted building Tuesday morning and said he was “incredibly sorry” and that everything he did was to bring people together.

The death toll remains at 36, with officials saying early Tuesday that no additional bodies have been recovered.

Alameda County Sheriff’s Deputy Tya Modeste said of the 36 victims found, 26 of their families have been notified. Another nine bodies have been “tentatively identified,” she said. Officials are still lacking any type of identity for one individual.

The fire erupted Friday night during a dance party at the warehouse that had been converted to artists’ studios and illegal living spaces.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said Tuesday afternoon that it is looking at the possibility that a refrigerator or other appliance was the source of a warehouse fire that killed 36 people.

Jill Snyder, the special agent in charge of the ATF’s San Francisco office, said it’s too early to say for sure a refrigerator caused the blaze, but she said it was a potential source of ignition. Snyder said investigators are looking at anything electrical on the first floor of the warehouse near where the fire started.

Founder Derick Ion Almena told the “Today Show” earlier Tuesday that he was at the site to put his face and his body in front of the scene. However, he deflected blame for the blaze. Almena said he signed a lease for the building that “was to city standards supposedly.”

“I’m only here to say one thing that I’m incredibly sorry and that everything that I did was to make this a stronger and more beautiful community and to bring people together,” he said.

Oakland Fire Battalion Chief Robert Lipp said crews have cleared 85 percent of the “Ghost Ship” building with one corner still inaccessible because it is unstable. Crews hope to stabilize it Tuesday.

Officials said they would turn next to investigating the fire. It’s unclear how it started. The district attorney warned of possible murder charges as she determines whether there were any crimes linked to the blaze.

“We owe it to the community and those who perished in this fire, and those who survived the fire to be methodical, to be thorough, and to take the amount of time it takes to be able to look at every piece of potential evidence,” Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley said.

The blaze is the most lethal building fire in the U.S. in more than a decade and stories of victim’s last minutes began to emerge Monday.

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.

On Monday night, hundreds of people holding candles and flowers honored those who died in the fire at a vigil at Oakland’s Lake Merritt.

Those in the crowd embraced each other or held up candles as they said aloud the names of people they lost in the blaze.

Several people in the crowd held signs offering “free hugs.”

Terry Ewing learned Monday what he already knew in his heart: His girlfriend, Ara Jo, was among the dead.

Earlier, Ewing said Jo’s friends and family had already started talking about the vibrant 29-year-old Oakland artist in the past tense, but needed confirmation. Friends remembered her as someone who could fit in anywhere, he said.

“If you take her somewhere, she’ll make friends with the surly punks in the corner as well as the elderly grandparents,” he said.

The cluttered warehouse 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.

Oakland city councilman Noel Gallo, who lives a block from the warehouse, said he confronted Almena several times about neighbors’ concerns about trash in the street and in front of the warehouse. Gallo said Almena essentially told authorities to “mind their own business” and appeared resistant to addressing complaints and complying with city codes.

Almena said on the “Today Show” on Tuesday that he signed a lease for the building that “was to city standards supposedly.”

Almena and his partner, Micah Allison, ran the building’s arts colony, called the Satya Yuga collective. Relatives, friends and former colleagues said Almena loved to surround himself with followers, but he seemed to care little for their well-being.

Almena told the “Today Show” that he and his family lived in the warehouse.

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.

Almena did not respond to emails or calls to phone numbers associated with him by The Associated Press. No one answered a call to a number for Allison.

The warehouse is owned by Chor N. Ng, her daughter Eva Ng told the Los Angeles Times. She said the warehouse was leased as studio space for an art collective and was not being used as a dwelling.

“We are also trying to figure out what’s going on like everybody else,” the family wrote in a statement to KNTV. “Our condolences go out to the families and friends of those injured and those who lost their lives.”

Eva Ng did not immediately return phone calls from The Associated Press.

Gallo said Chor N. Ng put Almena in charge of cleaning up the Ghost Ship, and nothing was done.

“I hold the owner of the property responsible,” Gallo said. “I hold the manager responsible.”

But questions persisted about whether city officials could have done more to prevent the fire. Oakland planning officials opened an investigation last month after complaints about the warehouse. An inspector who went to the premises couldn’t get inside, said Darin Ranelletti of the Oakland Planning Department.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said city officials are putting together a record of what they knew about the property.

Oakland Fire Battalion Chief Melinda Drayton told the San Francisco Chronicle that investigators believe the fire started in the center-rear of the converted warehouse. The cause of the fire remains unknown.

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