US & World

33 killed in Oakland warehouse fire, dozens more feared dead

This warehouse fire broke out during a concert and dance party in Oakland, California, on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016.
This warehouse fire broke out during a concert and dance party in Oakland, California, on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016.
@OaklandFireLive via Twitter

UPDATE: Criminal investigators from the city of Oakland are on scene at the Ghost Ship warehouse, where the death toll has risen to 33 as of late Sunday afternoon. Only 40% of the warehouse has been searched.

At a press conference held on Sunday shortly after 12 p.m., authorities announced the death toll had risen to 30 in a warehouse fire that broke out Friday night in the San Francisco Bay Area.

"That is an astronomical number," Sgt. Ray Kelly with the Alameda County Sheriff's Office spokesman said earlier in the day. "We’re still not done." Many missing people are still unaccounted for and only 20% of the warehouse has been searched. 

Officials have asked families looking for missing loved ones to preserve anything that might have DNA evidence on it — toothbrushes, hairbrushes, etc. — so they can use it if they need to identify bodies.

Only about 20 percent of the converted warehouse in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood, where the fire occurred, has been searched, authorities said Sunday morning.

The blaze broke out around 11:30 p.m. Friday. About 50 to 100 people were believed to have been at the party. The fire tore through the building during an event featuring musician Golden Donna of the Los Angeles-based electronic label 100% Silk. 

Golden Donna is the stage name of musician Joel Shanahan. A message posted on his Facebook page reads:

100% Silk also posted a Facebook message:

Many people remain unaccounted for as of Sunday afternoon and authorities were working to verify who was in the cluttered warehouse, but progress was slow. 

Friends and family members have been posting on both the event's Facebook page and a Google document, listing who is missing and who is safe. 

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Known as the "Oakland Ghost Ship," the warehouse was partitioned into artist studios and was packed with furniture, mannequins, statues, lamps, and other objects and did not have a clear entry or exit path, authorities said. The only way out of the second floor was a makeshift stairwell made of pallets.

"There is still a large portion of the building that still needs to be searched," Oakland Fire Chief Teresa Deloche-Reed said Saturday. "There is large timber and debris that will need to be removed and it's going to have to be removed in a slow and methodical way."

Officials described the scene inside the warehouse as a death trap that made it impossible for many partygoers to escape the Friday night fire. 

"It was just a labyrinth of little areas. We knew people were in there, and we were trying to get them out. But it was just a labyrinth," Oakland deputy fire chief Mark Hoffmann told reporters on Saturday.

He said that firefighters had to stop their search and rescue operation Saturday afternoon for safety reasons and shore up the structure, but they expected to resume later in the day. The building's roof had collapsed into the second floor, which in places fell to the bottom floor.

Oakland officials said they had opened an investigation last month into the warehouse after numerous complaints filed by neighbors who said trash was piling up outside the property and people were illegally living in the building, which was zoned as a warehouse.

Darin Ranelletti, of the Oakland Planning Department, said the city opened an investigation Nov. 13 and an investigator went to the premises on Nov. 17 but could not get inside the building. The city has not confirmed people were living inside.

One survivor, however, said that 18 artists lived inside the warehouse.

Bob Mule, a photographer and artist who lives at the building, told KGO-TV that he and another person smelled smoke and spotted the fire in a back corner and started yelling.

"The fire went up really, really, really quickly," he said.

Survivors said they struggled to find working fire extinguishers.

"It was too hot, too much smoke, I had to get out of there," Mule told the East Bay Times. "I literally felt my skin peeling and my lungs being suffocated by smoke. I couldn't get the fire extinguisher to work."

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It's unclear what sparked the fire. But officials said the clutter served as a tinderbox and there were no sprinklers inside.

"Something as simple as a cigarette could have started this," Alameda County Sheriff's Office spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly  said, adding that people either escaped from the building or died inside, where the only way down from the second story was via a stairwell constructed entirely of wooden pallets. "It appears that either you got out or you got trapped inside."

This story has been updated.