The city of Oakland, Calif., had been investigating whether people were illegally living in a warehouse that was the site of a deadly fire that broke out during a late-night party on Friday, killing at least nine people and as many as 40, officials said on Saturday.
Officials said people either escaped from the cluttered building or died inside, where the only way down from the second storey was via a stairwell constructed entirely of wooden pallets.
“It appears that either you got out or you got trapped inside,” said Alameda County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly.
Oakland fire chief Teresa Deloche-Reed said at least another 25 people were unaccounted for in what authorities were calling the most deadly building fire in the city in recent memory.
The victims were believed to be people in their 20s, Kelly said. He said as many as 40 may have died and that the coroner is preparing for a “mass casualty event” that could include victims from other countries.
Investigators were having trouble entering parts of the warehouse to search for any remaining bodies because the structure was deemed unsafe, Deloche-Reed said.
The building was still smouldering at midday Saturday.
The blaze started at about 11:30 p.m. on Friday in the two-story warehouse in the city’s Fruitvale district, a mostly Latino area that is also home to many artists living and working in converted warehouse lofts.
It was not immediately clear what started the fire, but there did not appear to be sprinklers in the building, Deloche-Reed said. She said 50 to 100 people were believed to have been at the party when the fire started and that clutter “made it difficult for people to escape.”
One survivor said he struggled to find a working fire extinguisher.
“It was too hot, too much smoke, I had to get out of there,” Bob Mule, a photographer and artist who lives at the building and suffered minor burns, 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.”
“There is a large majority of that building that has not been searched,” Deloach-Reed said during a news briefing.
“We are hoping that the number nine is what there is and that there are no more,” the fire chief said, referring to the number of known fatalities. “But we have not done a complete search of the building.”
City was investigating ‘Oakland Ghost Ship’
The warehouse housed makeshift artist studios carved out with curtains and other partitions, the fire chief said. The interior was cluttered with “a flea market of items,” she said. There was no evidence of any smoke detectors in the building.
The structure had only a single point of entry or exit from the second floor, where most of the dead were found, the chief said. A makeshift staircase appeared to be constructed from pallets.
The city said it was investigating nearly three weeks ago whether people were illegally living in the warehouse.
Darin Ranelletti, of the City of Oakland Planning Department, says the city had received reports of people living illegally in the building, which was only permitted as a warehouse. They opened an investigation on Nov. 13. He says an investigator went to the premises on Nov. 17 but could not gain access to the inside of the building
Ranelletti says they had not yet confirmed people were living inside. Photos posted online of the warehouse – called the “Oakland Ghost Ship” – showed pictures of a bohemian, loft-like interior made of wood and cluttered with beds, rugs, old sofas, pianos, paintings, turntables, statues and other items.
Neighbours had complained of trash piling up outside the property amid concerns the garbage posed a danger, according to the city’s Planning and Building Department website.