Families brace for news that loved ones among fire victims

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Terry Ewing is waiting for the confirmation he already knows in his heart: His girlfriend was among the dozens killed in the Oakland warehouse fire.

Hundreds of family members and friends find themselves in similar limbo, as firefighters continue a painstaking search for victims. On Monday, the death toll rose to 36, and officials say they know more bodies will be discovered.

“We’ve all quietly slipped into using past tense verbs, and I think everybody, in their hearts has a good idea of what the news is,” Ewing said. His girlfriend, Ara Jo, has not been seen since Friday night, when flames tore through a building known as the “Ghost Ship” during a dance party in the most lethal building fire in the U.S. in more than a decade.

“We’re just waiting.”

The laborious job of digging with shovels and buckets through the debris was suspended overnight because of a dangerously unstable wall. It resumed in the morning, though a rainstorm Tuesday could complicate the effort. The cluttered warehouse 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.

Oakland city councilman Noel Gallo, who lives a block from the warehouse, said he confronted the property’s manager — Derick Ion Almena — several times about neighbors’ concerns about trash in the street and in front of the warehouse. Gallo said Almena essentially told authorities to “mind their own business” and appeared resistant to addressing complaints and complying with city codes.

Almena and his partner, Micah Allison, ran the building’s arts colony, called the Satya Yuga collective. They were believed to have been away at the time of the blaze.

Relatives, friends and former colleagues said Almena loved to surround himself with followers, but seemed to care little for their well-being.

Asked late Sunday by San Francisco television station KGO about his thoughts on those killed in the fire, Almena said, “They’re my children. They’re my friends, they’re my family, they’re my loves, they’re my future. What else do I have to say?”

Almena did not respond to emails or calls to phone numbers associated with him by The Associated Press. No one answered a call to a number for Allison.

The warehouse is owned by Chor N. Ng, her daughter Eva Ng told the Los Angeles Times. She said the warehouse was leased as studio space for an art collective and was not being used as a dwelling.

“We are also trying to figure out what’s going on like everybody else,” the family wrote in a statement to NBC Bay Area. “Our condolences go out to the families and friends of those injured and those who lost their lives.”

Eva Ng did not immediately return phone calls from The Associated Press.

Gallo said Chor N. Ng put Almena in charge of cleaning up the Ghost Ship, and nothing was done.

“I hold the owner of the property responsible,” Gallo said. “I hold the manager responsible.”

But questions persisted about whether city officials could have done more to prevent the fire. Oakland planning officials opened an investigation last month after repeated complaints about the warehouse. An inspector who went to the premises couldn’t get inside, said Darin Ranelletti, of the Oakland Planning Department.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said city officials are putting together a record of what they knew about the property. The district attorney’s office also sent a team to search for evidence of a crime in the warehouse.

Gallo said the neighborhood was once an industrial zone and that many warehouses and vacant commercial buildings unfit for habitation remain. He said he’s concerned that many of them are being used as illegal dwellings given the dearth of affordable housing in the area. He said he will push for the city to hire more fire marshals and building inspectors to investigate.

Authorities have identified 11 of the bodies but withheld some of the names. Those whose identities were yet to be released included a 17-year-old and the son of a sheriff’s deputy, authorities said.

Investigators said they believe they have located the section of the building where the fire started, but the cause remains unknown.

Ewing, an Oakland software developer, learned something was wrong when Jo’s friends knocked on his door Saturday morning. They had been calling Jo — a 29-year-old community organizer — without luck and hoped her mobile had simply died or was lost in a couch.

They quickly figured out that wasn’t the case. And that’s when the waiting began.

Ewing looked through photographs Monday to remember Jo, as her family and friends mourned.

“At this point we have accepted the situation and are waiting for any development and announcements,” he said.

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