OAKLAND, Calif. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Officials in Oakland say the death toll has risen to 33 from a fire that tore through a warehouse that housed an artist collective.
Alameda County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ray Kelly announced the new figure Sunday evening.
“This was the most deadly fire in Oakland fire’s history that I’m aware of,” said Oakland fire Battalion Chief Melinda Drayton.
Authorities also say DNA will be needed to identify bodies. Officials have asked families of those feared dead to preserve any DNA evidence they may have, including hair or toothbrushes.
“It’s a terrible thing to have to say that and come out here and have to do that, but that’s what we’re left to deal with here,” Kelly said.
Oakland city officials identified seven victims late Sunday night:
• Cash Askew, 22, Oakland, Calif.
• David Clines, 35, Oakland, Calif.
• Nick Gomez-Hall, 25, Coronado, Calif.
• Sara Hoda, 30, Walnut Creek, Calif.
• Travis Hough, 35, Oakland, Calif.
• Donna Kellogg, 32, Oakland, Calif.
• Brandon Chase Wittenauer, 32, Hayward, Calif.
The search for bodies is expected to continue at least 48 hours.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said a criminal investigation has been launched. But officials’ focus right now is the compassionate removal of the victims, and the probe into the building’s history will come later.
As CBS News’ Danielle Nottingham reported, the building where the fire broke out was known as the “Ghost Ship.” The building is an artist workspace and illegal home for a rotating cast of a dozen or more residents, those who lived there or visited often said.
The building had hosted an electronic music dance party that had turned deadly.
“We are using shovels and buckets and sifting through all that debris,” Kelly said.
The search is painfully slow because the site of the warehouse is not safe.
“When we find a victim, we have to stop, we have to then conduct an investigation, it had to be thorough, everything has to be documented, then we can move that victim out, then we begin the search process again,” Kelly said.
Former residents said the building was a death trap with few exits, a rickety makeshift staircase, piles of driftwood and a labyrinth of electrical cords. The ground floor had five recreational vehicles and other nooks used as living spaces that were rented out to tenants, while the upstairs had space for concerts like the deadly party that drew up to 100 people Friday night.
“If you were not familiar with the building and the way that it was, if you were going there for a party, you wouldn’t be aware of the maze that you have to go through to get out,” said Danielle Boudreaux, a former friend of the couple who ran the warehouse.
Boudreaux identified the operators of the collective as Derick Ion Almena and Micah Allison. She said she had a falling out with Almena when she persuaded Allison’s parents and sister about a year ago that the warehouse was a dangerous place for the couple’s three children to live.
The couple charged tenants enough to cover the warehouse rent and used proceeds from parties to pay their own living expenses, Boudreaux said.
On Saturday, the artist retreat had turned into a scene of horrors, the 4,000-square-foot structure to rubble. The building’s roof had collapsed into the second floor, which in places fell to the bottom floor. Firefighters had to temporarily stop their search and rescue operations Saturday when they became too dangerous, taking time to shore up the structure, Oakland deputy fire chief Mark Hoffmann said.
Oakland officials said they had opened an investigation just last month into the warehouse after repeated complaints from neighbors who said trash was piling up 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 city has not confirmed people were living inside.
One man said he lived in the warehouse, but was not even home when the fire broke out.
“It was the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived in by far,” he said.
But the man also conceded that the building was not a safe place to live. When asked why he lived there, he said, “I didn’t think about consequences.”
Shelley Mack said she lived in the building about two years ago, staying four or five months. She said she wasn’t told the residence was illegal until after she moved in, when she was instructed to tell visitors it was a 24-hour workspace for artists.
When outsiders or inspectors planned to visit, residents would scurry to hide clothes and bedding, Mack said.
“It’s like a horror house. Just horrors in there,” she said, referring to things such as no electricity, running water and freezing temperatures.
Alastair Boone, 22, a University of California, Berkeley student arrived at the party with five friends around 11 p.m. and had just received a tour of the property and stepped outside before the fire broke out.
“In a couple of minutes there were flames coming out of the windows and black smoke was just billowing out of the house,” she said.
A man identified as Derick Ion posted a Facebook message early Saturday, saying “Everything I worked so hard for is gone. Blessed that my children and Micah were at a hotel safe and sound.” He drew rebukes online from others who said he was warned the building was unsafe.
Almena did not immediately respond to emails sent to addresses affiliated with him. Phone numbers either rang continually or were disconnected. Authorities declined to talk about the manager when asked by reporters Saturday, saying they were focused on recovering the bodies and consoling the families.
Online records listed the building’s owner as Nar Siu Chor. The Associated Press could not locate a telephone number for her Saturday and efforts to reach her at other Oakland addresses associated with her were not successful.
A website for the warehouse showed pictures of a bohemian, loft-like interior made of wood and cluttered with rugs, old sofas and a garage-sale like collection of pianos, paintings, turntables, statues and other items. Advertisements touted various electronic music parties. Friday night’s event featured musician Golden Donna’s 100% Silk West Coast tour.
It’s unclear what sparked the fire, but officials said the clutter served as a tinderbox and there were no sprinklers inside.
Alameda County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ray Kelly said 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.”
About 50 to 100 people were believed to have been at the party when the fire started around 11:30 p.m. Friday, officials said.
“We know there are bodies in there that we can’t get to — that have been seen but not recovered,” Kelly said.
Monica Kat, a paralegal, feared four of her friends were dead.
“We were all checking in looking for them and they’re still not accounted for and I can only think the worst at this point,” she said.
Dan Vega had been unable to find his 22-year-old brother or his brother’s girlfriend.
“I just want to go over there. I have my work boots on. I’m ready to go,” Dan Vega said.
Oakland police urged those concerned about missing people to call the Alameda County Sheriff’s Coroner’s Bureau at (510) 382-3000.
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