By Curtis Skinner
OAKLAND, Calif. (Reuters) - Authorities in Oakland, California, said on Tuesday they do not expect the death toll from a blaze that engulfed a converted warehouse during a dance party to rise above 36, but could not rule it out as they continued picking through debris.
Emergency workers had searched and cleared 85 percent of the charred building, officials told a news conference. Searchers are still sifting through the rest of the structure, with some parts too unstable to enter.
"We're going to continue the process until absolutely every piece of debris is removed from the building (and) every area has been searched," said Oakland Police Department spokeswoman Johnna Watson.
The cause of the fire, which erupted late on Friday in the sprawling two-story building leased to an artists' collective, has yet to be determined.
The dance party was held on the second floor, which partially collapsed. Survivors said flames spread quickly and billowing thick, black smoke blinded and choked those struggling to flee.
Officials have said arson was not immediately suspected. But charges ranging from involuntary manslaughter to murder could feature in a potential criminal case, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley told reporters on Monday.
The 10,000-square-foot (929-sq-m) building lacked sprinklers or smoke detectors, and wooden pallets partially formed a makeshift stairway between first and second floors, officials said on Monday. It had just two exterior doorways.
Derrick Almena, the manager of the warehouse, broke down on Tuesday during an interview with NBC's "Today" program and declined to answer questions about the conditions of the building before the fire. He did say he was sorry.
"I'd rather get on the floor and be trampled by the parents," Almena said. "I'd rather let them tear at my flesh than answer these ridiculous questions."
Possible safety violations were expected to be one aspect of the probe, with city officials having said the site was already under investigation for reports of illegal construction.
Among the 36 confirmed victims killed in the inferno, 26 families have been notified of deaths, and nine victims have been tentatively identified, Alameda County Sheriff Deputy Tya Modeste said on Tuesday. One unidentified victim remains.
Fire officials resumed recovery operations shortly after 2 a.m. on Tuesday after being forced to suspend searches on Monday due to the instability of the structure. By removing a wall blockage and stabilizing floor areas, they were able to continue, according to Oakland Fire Department Battalion Chief Robert Lipp.
"There's one corner that remains unstable," Lipp said, referring to the remaining 15 percent of the building that cannot be accessed. "That's another thing we will be doing throughout the day today is stabilizing that corner so we can search that last section."
(Additional reporting by Gina Cherelus and David Ingram in New York, and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Alden Bentley and Alistair Bell)