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No Cause Determined in Deadly Oakland Warehouse Fire; Investigation Continues

There is no record of an Oakland building inspector going inside the so-called Ghost Ship warehouse, where 36 people died Friday, in the last 30 years

The investigation into last week's devastating Oakland warehouse blaze has yet to reveal what caused the inferno, which claimed 36 lives and has been deemed the United States' deadliest fire in 13 years, federal officials said Wednesday.

City officials revealed that the building, which was used for artist's studios and illegal living spaces, hadn't been looked into by city building inspectors in over 30 years. And the NBC Bay Area I-Team found that there is no record that Oakland fire inspectors had been inside the warehouse in the last decade.

An electronic music party was in full swing at the so-called Ghost Ship warehouse when a three-alarm fire sparked around 11:30 p.m. Friday. City officials identified two more victims — Jason McCarty, 35, and Wolfgang Renner, 61, both of Oakland — on Wednesday, bringing the total number of names released to 28. 

The Oakland fire has the highest number of casualties in the United States since a 2003 nightclub fire killed 100 people in Rhode Island, said Jill Snyder, special agent in charge of the San Francisco office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Snyder, during a media briefing Wednesday, said there was no evidence a fire alarm or fire suppression system was installed at the warehouse, located at 1315 E. 31st Ave.

The fire appears to have started on the first floor of the warehouse and smoke trapped occupants on the second floor, Snyder said. It was "well developed" before second-floor occupants realized the building was engulfed. The building's two stairwells, which connected the first and second floors, did not lead to exits, she said. 

Reports pointing to a refrigerator as a cause for the fire are false, Snyder said, adding that investigators are not ruling it out. There is also no evidence the fire was intentionally set, she added.

Reporters grilled Darin Ranilletti, interim director of Oakland's Planning and Building Department, about a history of code violations at 1315 31st Avenue — the warehouse — and 1305 31st Avenue - the vacant lot next door.

"Our records didn't show that an inspector had been inside the building in the last year 30 years," Ranelletti said at a news conference. Building inspectors can only go inside a property when following up on a permit request or complaint about its interior, he said.

When asked about neighbors' complaints regarding house construction at the warehouse in 2014, Ranelletti clarified that their grievances were for the vacant lot adjacent to the warehouse. Not seeing construction on the vacant lot, inspectors dismissed the complaint, he said.

Most recently, Ranelletti said an inspector visited the vacant lot on Nov. 17 and 18, 2016, in response to a complaint about blight and an illegal interior building stucture. A notice of violation was issued, and the propety owner was given until Jan. 16 to respond.

"If we have an inspector that's looking at a particular property for which the complaint has been registered, he or she is not going to investigate adjacent properties on the street unless there's a physical obvious violation," Rannelletti said. "And at that time, that inspector did not see a physical, obvious violation at the warehouse."

The city employs about 11 building inspectors, Rannelletti said, who are tasked with handling an estimated 4,000 complaints a year. It's a similar situation at Oakland's Fire Prevention Bureau, which employs six fire inspectors, who had not stepped foot inside the warehouse in over a decade

One retired fire inspector told the I-Team that it is clear from pre-fire photos of the conditions there that such an inspection would have led to citations at the warehouse.

City Mayor Libby Schaaf said she will be working with city agencies to reform Oakland's building complaint system to prevent future tragedies.

However, Shelley Mack, a former tenant of the now-devastated warehouse where about 18 artists lived and worked, believes it was just a matter of time before the building that felt more like a maze went up in flames.

"This was senseless," Mack said. "This was exactly what I was trying to prevent."

Mack said she shelled out nearly $600 a month in rent, but lease-holder Derick Almena refused to make the building safer, instead profiting off those living inside.

"Derick isn’t a victim of the housing crisis," Mack said, but "a predator of the housing crisis."

Wednesday's updates to the investigation came hours after crews and cadaver dogs completed a search of the warehouse, with the death toll holding at 36. 

According to Alameda County sheriff's Sgt. Ray Kelly, the investigation has taken its toll, especially as those looking into the fire heard stories of people sending farewell texts to family members as the warehouse burned.

Families have received "messages of 'I am going to die. I love you,'" Kelly said, "and so those have been hard."

Thirty-two victims' families have been notified of their deaths, while three were being informed as of Wednesday afternoon. One victim needs scientific identification, officials explained.

"We will no longer find other victims — that's huge," Kelly said.  

On Tuesday, Oakland officials declared a local state of emergency because of the fire. The city council is scheduled to ratify the state of emergency on Thursday, which makes the city eligible for state and federal aid.

Mayor Schaaf said Wednesday that her top priority is making the city safer and addressing issues drudged up by the fatal fire.

"Oakland will move forward with compassion and an unwavering commitment to safety in all of its forms," Schaaf said.

Toward that end, she has spearheaded a national fire safety task force with help from the National Fire Protection Association — three representatives of which are currently aboard a flight heading to the East Bay — and U.S. Fire Administrator Ernest Mitchell, Jr. 

"My immediate priorities for this task force are enhanced building safety, event safety and complaint procedures," Schaaf said. "Some areas where we'll be considering new regulations include smoke alarms, carbon monoxide monitors, enhanced fire inspections, stronger emergency exit requirements, the permitting of events and the monitoring of illegal events."

Schaaf stressed that it is essential to "clarify the responsibility of city employees to properly report any obs of dangerous living condtions and illegal events."

However, she stressed, "We will not scapegoat city employees in the wake of this disaster."

The city's Artist Housing and Workspace Task Force will also be reconvened and expanded, according to Schaaf, to "ensure that the arts community is fully engaged in this conversation."

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