California warehouse fire kills at least 24, search for victims could last days

Fire crews sifting through the charred rubble of a warehouse in Oakland, Calif., have found the bodies of 24 people who died in a blaze that broke out during a rave, a police official said Sunday.

Sgt. Ray Kelly of Alameda County’s Sheriff’s Office updated the death toll during a news conference, held after firefighters searched 20 per cent of the building, which caught fire Friday night.

Warehouse party fire

Dozens of people were inside the building for the ‘Rave Cave’ party when a deadly fire broke out. (Darin Marshall/Facebook)

“We anticipate the number of victims will rise” he said, adding that some of their names will be released “in the coming hours.” He said the search was expected to continue for a number of days.

Melinda Drayton, the Oakland battalion fire chief, told reporters firefighters with shovels are going “bucket by bucket” in a “mindful, methodical and compassionate way” as they search for victims.

She said 10 of the victims were found in the centre of the second-floor venue space after crews removed large timber rafters that had collapsed. As firefighters entered the building early Saturday, they took a ”sombre approach” in their search, she said.

“It was quiet. It was heartbreaking,” Drayton said.

Crews set up powerful lights overnight so they could better carry out their work in the Fruitvale district, but the threat of a building collapse has been slowing recovery work. 

Many of the victims were young people in their 20s or 30s, said authorities, who initially said they believe as many as 40 people died inside what was nicked the “Ghost Ship” warehouse, which housed artists and their studios.

A man who was working in the building when the fire began, around 11:30 p.m., managed to escape.

Warehouse Party Fire

Genevieve Griseau cries as she attends a memorial for victims of the fire at Chapel of the Chimes church in Oakland on Saturday. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

“We were downstairs. I was about to start painting and we tried to figure out where the smoke was coming from and then we saw where the fire was.It was on the back left corner of the space,” Bob Mulé, 27, told NBC News.

“We started yelling and trying to get everyone out,” he said.

An Oakland building official told The Los Angeles Times the warehouse was the subject of several building code violations and there was no permit for the party to take place.

Former residents told the L.A. Times the building lacked fire sprinklers.

Officials at Sunday’s news conference did not address those issues. The fire battlion chief would only say that there were two staircases and the fire “was not in the area of the staircases.” 

The building occupied about half a city block and housed a cluttered warren of artists’ studios, craft booths, antiques and furniture.

The dance party, featuring electronic music performances, took place on the second floor of the building. Media reports say one of the two exits was a makeshift staircase that was apparently constructed from wooden pallets.

The warehouse roof collapsed onto the second floor during the fire, according to authorities, and portions of the second floor caved in on the first storey.

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CBC | World News