Legal Expert Weighs in on Owner's Responsibility for Oakland Warehouse Fire: 'Building Codes Were Put in Place to Prevent Tragedies Like This'

After a fire ripped through an Oakland warehouse, claiming 36 lives, the party responsible for the building's lack of safety measures remains unclear

After a fire ripped through the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland, California, and claimed 36 lives, the question lingers: What could have been done to prevent such a tragedy?

As the investigation into the cause of the fire – one of the deadliest structure fires in the U.S. in the past decade – continues, the building’s operator and master tenant, Derick Ion Almena, apologized for the tragedy in an emotional interview – but denied he had made it unsafe or shirked safety codes.

While tenants and neighbors claim that Almena illegally carved the building into living and studio spaces for artists, investigators declined to tell the Associated Press whether they believe Almena or the building’s owner, Chor N. Ng, bear any responsibility for the deaths.

The answer may turn out to be that both bear responsibility, Eustace de Saint Phalle, a San Francisco-based attorney for the firm Rains Lucia Stern tells PEOPLE.

“It could be both,” de Saint Phalle says of the responsible party. “The property owner has certain responsibilities with regard to maintaining and inspecting their property and the person who is the property manager or master tenant also has individual responsibilities related to the maintenance and operation of a property consistent with its zoning.”

The Ghost Ship warehouse was not permitted for residential use and its owner was under investigation for an “illegal interior building structure,” according to city records reviewed by the San Jose Mercury News. However, when inspectors visited the building on November 17, they couldn’t gain access.

“What I don’t understand is why weren’t they able to gain access, and if that was the case, why didn’t they stay there until they could?” said Dan Vega, an Oakley mechanic whose 22-year-old brother Alex Vega is still missing, told the newspaper. “They should have locked it up.”

“I don’t think it’s fair that my brother had to lose his life because the city didn’t know what to do.”

Firefighters who battled the deadly blaze reported that its victims were likely trapped in the warehouse visitors said was full of wood and antiques like a “tinderbox” couldn’t access a “makeshift, one-way stairwell” made of wooden pallets that connected the first and second floors, according to the East Bay Express.

District attorney Nancy O’Malley said that the ruins of the warehouse are “a potential crime scene,” at a Monday afternoon press conference, but added that, “it’s too premature to know where the investigation will lead us.”

“Many have asked us what kind of criminal charges are available to us,” O’Malley said, according to The Guardian. “The question is whether or not the range of charges could be murder all the way to involuntary manslaughter, and [will be] until we know what the evidence shows us.”

If criminal charges are brought, victims’ families and survivors may receive financial restitution. De Saint Phalle says there is also potential for civil cases to be brought against the building’s owner, Almena and anyone who may have done work on the building.

“Civil actions would look to the individuals who would be responsible for having created the condition that led to the fire and tragedy that happened there,” he says.

He adds that after a grieving period, victims’ families may choose to bring civil lawsuits and pursue new legislation that could prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future. De Saint Phalle is currently involved in lawsuits and legislative efforts on behalf of the families of the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse that killed six students and left seven injured in 2015.

“In the Berkeley balcony collapse cases many of the families wanted to try to push for changes to legislation which is an ongoing process in the state of California,” de Saint Phalle says. “In this case, there may be an interest in trying to look at the building codes.”

Many have blamed the Bay Area’s housing crisis for forcing lower-income individuals into illegal and unsafe living spaces like the Ghost Ship. Schaaf said she has ordered an independent analysis of the city’s handling of the building and others like it while. For now, de Saint Phalle urged building owners to ensure their spaces are up to code.

“Sprinklers, smoke alarms and multiple exits are needed so people have some way of escaping,” he says. “Building codes were put in place to prevent tragedies like this.”

While investigations are ongoing, Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf said the city’s priority remains identifying victims and notifying their families. A statement from the city of Oakland said 33 of the 36 victims have been tentatively identified. The victims included musicians, artists and university students ranging in age from 17-35.

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