Mourners honor warehouse fire victims

Hundreds gathered Monday evening at Lake Merritt and in the Castro for candlelight vigils in honor of Oakland fire victims, and Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern said he’s hopeful no more dead bodies will be found at the site of the warehouse fire that has so far claimed 36 lives.

Saying he can’t be sure there are no additional casualities until authorities finish searching the site at 1305 31st Ave., Ahern said there are still “two areas of concern” that haven’t been searched yet because of safety issues.

But he said, “We don’t anticipate any huge numbers” in addition to the 36 people whose bodies have been recovered so far.

Ahern said 16 victims’ families have been notified of deaths and five more families were being notified this afternoon.

Three of the victims who died were from out of the country, one each from Finland, Korea and Guatemala, Ahern said.

The vigil at Harvey Milk Plaza, hosted by Rev. Megan Rohrer and other local transgendered religious leaders, highlighted the fact that many of the victims of Friday’s three-alarm fire and others affected by it were transgendered.

Rohrer, the first openly transgendered pastor ordained in the Lutheran Church, said she had been called Friday to help minister to the families and friends of victims. Authorities have found 36 bodies so far in the wreckage of the Fruitvale warehouse art space known as the “Ghost Ship,” which caught fire Friday around 11:30 p.m. during a party and electronic music show.

Rohrer said:

“I heard of the great need for there to be a space for the transgendered individuals who are mourning their friends, who might not have a safe space to mourn in. … Who might, in addition to their love of music and art, be in a warehouse because it was one of the spaces that they felt safe in.”

Rohrer noted that one of those confirmed dead in the fire, Cash Askew, was a popular transgendered musician. Askew performed with the group Them Are Us Too.

Rohrer noted that authorities were taking care, as they identified the dead, to confirm the preferred gender and names of transgendered individuals. In some cases, however, she said identification and notification of family had been slowed by difficulty in determining individual’s legal names.

The Alameda County coroner’s bureau has completed 22 autopsies of the 36 victims found so far and more autopsies will be done on Tuesday, Ahern said. Names of eight of the victims have been released and others will be released as their next of kin are notified.

The recovery efforts were halted early this morning because of structural integrity issues at the front of building, Oakland Deputy Fire Chief Darin White said.

He said crews have searched through about 75 percent of the building as of this afternoon and he expects the recovery efforts to resume tonight.

Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley said a criminal investigation team is looking into the fire and is headed by a deputy district attorney with expertise in land and property use.

“It’s too early to speculate” on possible charges, O’Malley said, but she said possible charges could range from murder to involuntary manslaughter if the evidence warrants.

She said:

“We’ve been getting a lot of phone calls giving us information and we need to follow up on those leads.”

O’Malley said her investigators have begun interviewing people she described as “operators” of the “Ghost Ship” but she declined to say if that includes chief operator Derick Ion Almena.

O’Malley said a hotline where people can provide additional information is available at (877) 288-2882, while victims and their families can seek support at (510) 272-6180.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf declined to comment on whether local officials should have done more to investigate potential wrongdoing at the warehouse, saying, “In the days and weeks ahead we’ll have many conversations about what we’ve learned and how we move forward.” Schaaf said, “We have all hands on deck” and at this time the city’s priority is working with and comforting the families of the fire victims.

Schaaf said she’s limited in what she can say because a criminal investigation is now under way.

She said:

“We would not want to compromise the District Attorney’s ability to hold people responsible for this potential atrocity.”

According to court records, on Jan. 13, 2015, Almena, 46, was arrested on suspicion of felony possession of stolen property at the warehouse. According a probable cause statement, a woman said she flagged down a patrolling sheriff’s deputy and said Almena had stolen her trailer and she had tracked it to the 31st Avenue site.

The woman, who claimed Almena was her former tenant, performed a citizen’s arrest of Almena and Deputy Jeremy Lucha arrested him and booked him into the Glenn Dyer Jail in downtown Oakland.

Lucha said in his report that Almena confessed to having the trailer “for about a week.” District Attorney officials couldn’t be reached for comment on how Almena’s case was resolved.