OAKLAND (CBS SF) – While federal agents searched for a cause and the local prosecutor considered possible criminal charges, members of Congress Thursday held a moment of silence for the 36 victims of the deadly Ghost Ship Warehouse fire.
Rep. Barbara Lee surrounded by East Bay Congressmen Eric Swalwell and Mark DeSaulnier led their colleagues in a moment of silence and prayer.
“Last weekend, my home city of Oakland, California suffered a horrific tragedy constituents from Congressman Swalwell district, Congressman DeSaulnier district suffered this tremendous tragedy…A devastating fire at an artist collective warehouse killed 36 young, talented individuals,” Lee told her colleagues.
“These were young men and women who had their whole future ahead but their lives were tragically cut short,” she continued.
• Continuing Coverage: Deadly Oakland Warehouse Fire
In the search for a cause, agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were set to examine the building’s electrical system and appliances found amid the ruins.
Jill Snyder, the ATF Special Agent In Charge of the San Francisco, confirmed that the fire started on the ground floor and spread rapidly, trapping the victims on the second floor where a party/concert was underway.
“The occupants were consumed by smoke before they could get out of the building,” she said.
Investigators said they had found no evidence of no sprinklers or fire alarm system in the building.
Snyder reiterated that investigators were examining a refrigerator and other possibilities as a potential source of the fire but had not reached any conclusions.
Officials also hope to use high-tech to create a virtual, 3D reconstruction of the building for criminal and civil investigations and to provide answers to family members about their loved ones’ last moments, Alameda County sheriff’s Sgt. Ray Kelly said.
“Where was my son or daughter? Where were they standing? How come they didn’t get out?” he said. “Families want answers. They need answers.”
The fire broke out during a dance party Friday night in the cluttered warehouse.
The structure 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.
Danielle Boudreaux, a 40-year-old hairdresser who was close with Derick Ion Almena, the founder of the artists’ colony, and his partner, Micah Allison, said it was full of extension cords plugged into each other that helped supply power to music equipment, microwaves and hot plates.
There were also RVs inside.
City and state officials fielded complaints for years about dangerous conditions, drugs, neglected children, trash, thefts and squabbles at the warehouse, raising questions about why it wasn’t shut down.
Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley has warned of possible murder charges as she determines whether there were any crimes linked to the blaze.
The fire has cast a spotlight on similar artists’ colonies around the country that offer cheap housing but have raised safety concerns among neighbors and city officials.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said the city will look to strengthen regulations for smoke alarms and exits and clarify city employees’ responsibilities to monitor unsafe structures.
She said the city wants to engage the arts community in the review to ensure any changes don’t jeopardize their access to affordable housing and work space.
On Wednesday, an Oakland restaurant owner, Dorothy King, called a news conference to say she was concerned the artists’ warehouse next to her business could pose a safety hazard.
Several artists tried to shout her down, accusing her of launching a “witch hunt” that could result in artists’ collectives being shut down.
King said that wasn’t her intention.
“I’m concerned about my business burning down. I’m concerned about a tragedy that could happen,” she said. “The city should come in and help, not shut it down.”
The fire has other major cities around the country evaluating their artist live/work spaces.
In Baltimore, officials shut down an arts building for safety violations and evicted dozens of tenants three days after the fatal fire.
Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer told the Los Angeles Times that he will meet next week with the fire chief and the head of the building and safety department to discuss what he calls an aggressive response to illegal apartment and loft conversions in commercial buildings.
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