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Oakland Warehouse Victims Texted Goodbye From Fire

With the Alameda County sheriff saying he doesn't believe more bodies will be recovered, the investigation into the "Ghost Ship" warehouse fire looms

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Alameda County sheriff's Sgt. Ray Kelly said that crews have recovered 30 bodies so far, but expects the death toll to climb as firefighters maneuver through the wrecked “Oakland Ghost Ship," where between 50 and 100 people were attending a Friday night electronic music festival. (Published Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016)

    Some people managed to text loved ones goodbye and "I love you" before they died in an Oakland warehouse fire that claimed three dozen lives, officials said, as heart-rending reports of victims' last moments emerged from the most lethal building fire in the U.S. in more than a decade.

    Also Monday, the painful and exhaustive search for those killed in the fire appeared to be coming to a close. On Tuesday, Alameda County Sheriff's Deputy Tya Modeste said the casualty count held steady at 36 people, and everyone had been identified except for one "John Doe." Oakland police spokeswoman Johnna Watson added that officials are trying to be extra sensitive on naming those who died in the transgender and LGBT community to make sure that gender identifications are properly made.

    Fire crews re-entered the warehouse at 1305 East Oakland Ave. at 2:20 a.m. Tuesday, an official said at a news conference, and had searched about 85 percent of the building. The left-hand corner of the building was still too unstable to enter, officials said.

    Officials said they would turn next to investigating the fire, which erupted late Friday during a dance party. It's unclear how it started. The district attorney warned of possible murder charges as she determines whether there were any crimes linked to the blaze.

    "We owe it to the community and those who perished in this fire, and those who survived the fire to be methodical, to be thorough, and to take the amount of time it takes to be able to look at every piece of potential evidence," Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley said.

    Meanwhile, Alameda County sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly said that some of the victims texted relatives, "I'm going to die," and "I love you."

    Rescue crews found bodies of people "protecting each other, holding each other," Kelly said.

    Monday night, hundreds of people holding candles and flowers honored those who died in the fire at a vigil at Oakland's Lake Merritt.

    RAW: Close-Up View of Burned Oakland Warehouse

    [NATL-BAY] RAW: Close-Up View of Burned Oakland Warehouse
    Officials allowed media a closer look Tuesday at the burned Oakland warehouse where 36 people lost their lives late Friday.
    (Published Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016)

    Those in the crowd embraced each other or held up candles as they said aloud the names of people they lost in the blaze.

    Several people in the crowd held signs offering "free hugs."

    Terry Ewing learned Monday what he already knew in his heart: His girlfriend, Ara Jo, was among the dead in the fire that broke out during an underground dance party at a building known as the "Ghost Ship."

    Earlier, Ewing said Jo's friends and family had already started talking about the vibrant 29-year-old Oakland artist in the past tense, but needed confirmation. He went through photographs as he waited. Friends remembered her as someone who could fit in anywhere, he said.

    "If you take her somewhere, she'll make friends with the surly punks in the corner as well as the elderly grandparents," he said.

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

    2 Survivors Describe Deadly Oakland Warehouse Fire

    [NATL-BAY] RAW: Two Survivors of Deadly Oakland Warehouse Fire Describe the Scene Inside
    Survivors Nikki Kelber and Carmen Brito describe the horrific scene inside the converted Oakland warehouse where they lived as they fled for their lives and tried to help others escape the building where dozens died in a fire late Friday night. "I came out of my space and saw an entire wall on fire 20 feet from where I was standing," Brito said as anguish echoed from her voice. "I just knew there was nothing that could be done." In a matter of 30 seconds, Brito managed to make a beeline for the front door and escaped the inferno consuming her home. She described the entire ordeal by saying "everything happened so quickly." Her friend, Kelber, jumped from her loft, grabbed her cat and switched on a head lamp to help navigate the foggy maze. Her ghastly escape through the dark was complete in a matter of moments. "I feel like it was 30 seconds from when I looked down the hall to when it was pretty much engulfed," Kelber said. "It was so fast."
    (Published Monday, Dec. 5, 2016)

    Almena told NBC Bay Area he didn't know the event was taking place, and he wasn't at the warehouse Friday night because he and his wife had decided to stay at a hotel because he was exhausted and their children had school.

    "We're sorry to the families and all the friends that have lost loved ones," he said. "I gladly would give my entire life of fortune, of wealth of experience again and again and again, and I say this to you and I say this to the camera and to whoever is watching me that I surrender everything."

    RAW: Video Shows Oakland Warehouse Building Engulfed in Flames

    [BAY] RAW: Video Shows Oakland Warehouse Building Engulfed in Flames
    Video shot by Oakland resident Darin Marshall shows the scene of the deadly fire late Friday night.
    (Published Monday, Dec. 5, 2016)

    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.

    RAW VIDEO: Oakland Mayor Discusses Deadly Warehouse Fire

    [BAY] RAW VIDEO: Mayor Holds Press Conference About Deadly Oakland Fire
    Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and other city officials hold a press conference regarding a deadly warehouse fire.
    (Published Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016)

    "We are also trying to figure out what's going on like everybody else," the family wrote in a statement to KNTV. "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. She was booed and shouted at during the vigil, as some believe she isn't doing enough to protect non-traditional living spaces. 

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

    NBC Bay Area's Lisa Fernandez and Associated Press writers Ellen Knickmeyer, Olga R. Rodriguez, Tim Reiterman, Sudhin Thanawala, Jonathan J. Cooper and Terry Chea contributed to this report.