he grim search for bodies in the ruins of the Oakland warehouse fire entered its third day Monday as criminal investigators began to examine who is to blame for one of the worst fires in modern California history.
Thirty-three bodies have been recovered, but officials expect the death toll to rise. As of Sunday night, only about half of the building had been searched, officials said.
Alameda County authorities released the names of seven people who died: Cash Askew, 22; David Cline, 23; Travis Hough, 35; and Donna Kellogg, 32, of Oakland; Sara Hoda, 30, of Walnut Creek; Brandon Chase Wittenauer, 32, of Hayward; and Nick Gomez-Hall, 25, of Coronado. The name of one minor was withheld.
Sgt. Ray Kelly, a spokesman for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, said the majority of the victims were in their 20s and 30s, but that some were teenagers.
Kelly said the district attorney’s office has sent a team of criminal investigators to work alongside the sheriff’s arson task force and the Oakland Police Department. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has also sent representatives to help in the investigation, providing resources, forensics and laboratory work.
The investigators are working to uncover any potential criminal activity that may have led to the blaze.
“When you have the amount of victims that we have, you don’t rule anything out,” Kelly told The Times in a telephone interview Sunday night. “People want answers. People want to know that the investigation into this fire is very thorough.”
Officials have said the warehouse had been the subject of a city code enforcement investigation at the time of the fire due to complaints about health and safety issues. Some former residents described it as a cluttered “death trap” lacking fire sprinklers.
With identities of the victims slow to emerge, social media outlets provided the connection for family and friends from around the world, allowing them to share hospital numbers, compile a list of possible victims and express their shock and disbelief.
“Oh my god, Sara Hoda is missing in this fire,” Carol Crewdson wrote about a friend who had texted that she was going to the party and whose truck was found parked outside the venue.
But for some friends and loved ones, the unanswered phone calls, texts and Facebook messages provided the answer they never wanted to hear.
David Gregory said he thought his daughter was staying overnight at her boyfriend’s house when she didn’t come home Friday night. Gregory said he had not known that Michela, a 20-year-old honor roll student at San Francisco State, had gone to a concert at the warehouse with her boyfriend.
Gregory had stopped by the Alameda County sheriff’s station Sunday looking for information and was asked to return with some trace of his daughter’s DNA, such as strands of hair from a comb or brush.
“Try to put yourself in our shoes,” he said. “You know there was a fire. And that she was attending that event. Then you see footage of the building on fire, knowing that everybody in there is being burned alive. It’s the worst way to go … there is no worse way.”
The tragedy took a personal turn for responders when they learned that the son of an Alameda County sheriff’s deputy was among those who died.
“This tragedy has hit very close to home for our agency,” Kelly said. “We’re still dealing with that as we continue to deal with the other victims.”
The lack of a complete list of victims fueled an atmosphere of dread for some.
Cory Grimes said that when she discovered that her roommate, Jennifer Mendiola, had gone to the concert and was missing, she felt as though the wind had been knocked out of her. Grimes said her hands were shaking so badly that she was unable to send messages. She checked a Facebook memorial page that listed Mendiola as a victim. But there was no proof.
“There’s a lot of misinformation right now, and that makes it hurt more,” Grimes said.