In a new twist in the Oakland warehouse fire that killed 36 people in December, an attorney representing a number of victims is conducting a private investigation, combing through charred evidence at multiple sites in Oakland.
The search for evidence is taking place in a field not far from the so-called Ghost Ship warehouse. In a couple of weeks, it will shift to a hangar at or near Oakland International Airport, where more debris has been stored.
The cause of the deadly fire on Dec. 2 is still unknown, according to Oakland fire officials, but lawyer Mary Alexander is determined to figure out how it started.
"We’re looking for evidence," said Alexander, who representing the families of 31 victims in a lawsuit. "We’re looking for what might be here in the way of cameras with photos, anything to do with the fire pattern."
Sifting through all the burned debris is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.
"We found some of the flooring," Alexander said. "There was a second floor where the party was being held. That’s helpful to us because witnesses tell us they saw fire come up through the floor boards."
Last month, Derick Almena and his second in command, Max Harris, each were charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter. In the civil suit, the families are going after the two men, the building owners, the party promoters and PG&E.
"We feel it’s very important that we preserve the evidence," Alexander said. "After we go through the debris, tag things, it’s all going into containers that will be carefully preserved."
Even though going through the debris a second time provides no guarantee, Alexander is looking for answers for her clients.
"No matter what the cause of the fire was, they couldn’t get out," she said.
Experts say conducting such an independent search is not unusual because the case is civil, not criminal. And every bit of evidence found, according to Alexander, can be relevant to the case.