The death toll continues to climb in Oakland as authorities comb through the wreckage of Friday’s blaze, which has now claimed a confirmed 36 lives.
District Attorney Nancy O’Malley has promised a thorough criminal probe into the fire that killed scores of revelers during a concert at a converted warehouse and arts space over the weekend, decimating Oakland’s close-knit creative community.
On Monday, President Obama joined the nation in mourning the deaths of those who perished in the blaze and promised the White House was staying in close touch with the state and local officials conducting the investigation.
“While we still don’t know the full toll of this disaster, we do know that an American community has been devastated, and many people — including young men and women with their whole futures ahead of them — have tragically lost their lives,” Obama said in a statement.
Information about the victims is just now coming to light. Most of those who lost their lives on Friday night were young, in their 20s and 30s. At least some of the victims were teenagers — the youngest was Draven McGill, a choir singer and junior at San Francisco’s Ruth Asawa School of the Arts — and one was the son of a local police deputy. The fire also claimed the lives of beloved local artists and musicians, among them Cash Askew from the band Them Are Us Too on the Brooklyn and Los Angeles–based record label Dais Records. At least three of the people who died were from foreign nations.
As the local community tries to come to terms with the tragedy, the space itself and its owner, the artist Derick Almena, as well as the Bay Area’s increasingly untenable cost of living have come under scrutiny. The space was a warehouse that Alema had converted into a live-work space for artists, and a live music venue known locally as the Ghost Ship. It had been the subject of multiple complaints before the fire, and building inspectors had been denied access to investigate. Alema, a proponent of the city’s proud do-it-yourself ethos, lacked the appropriate permits to run, rent out, and remodel the space as a venue. He had converted it into a warren of small cluttered rooms divided by wooden separators, which at least one former attendee described as “a tinderbox” and a “deathtrap.” At the time of the fire, the Ghost Ship was home to an estimated 25 artists, including Alema and his family, who were staying at a nearby hotel when the fire started.
Alema was widely castigated for a post he made to his Facebook page after the fire complaining that “everything I worked so hard for” had been lost, without mentioning the loss of human life.
In a subsequent interview, Alema explained that when he first wrote about the fire, he didn’t know that anybody had been killed. He said in a statement to NBC News:
In my previous Facebook post, I had no idea there was a loss of life. This tragic event consumes me every moment. My heart is broken. My heartfelt condolences to the family and friends who have suffered the loss of loved ones.
A criminal investigation team from the Alameda County District Attorney’s office has been taking part in the investigation. They’re working alongside local law enforcement, including the Oakland Fire Department and federal investigators, to determine if criminal charges should be brought, and against whom.
According to Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, while it is still too early to know for sure, “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.”
Meanwhile a makeshift memorial has been growing in front of the burnt-out remains of the Ghost Ship, with survivors and loved ones stopping by to grieve and leave flowers, candles, and photographs.
In his statement, President Obama hailed Oakland as among the “most diverse and creative cities” in the country, and promised the community there the “unwavering support of the American people” as they mourn and eventually begin to heal.