The confirmed death toll from a blaze that engulfed a converted warehouse during a weekend dance party in Oakland, California, rose to 36 on Monday, the greatest loss of life from a US fire in over a decade, and officials said they were certain to find more bodies.
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What sparked the fire, which erupted late on Friday in a sprawling two-story building that housed an artists’ collective, has yet to be determined, but authorities were believed to be examining possible safety violations at the site, which was already under investigation for reports of illegal construction.
Investigators from the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives identified an “area of interest” on the ground floor that was still out of reach, according to Sergeant Ray Kelly, a spokesman for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. He declined to elaborate, though authorities said their first priority remained the recovery of victims and support for their loved ones.
“We are no closer to finding the cause, and we absolutely believe that the number of fire fatalities will increase,” Oakland Fire Battalion Chief Melinda Drayton told a news conference at the site. Authorities have said arson was not immediately suspected. But a team of criminal investigators from the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office has been activated, and prosecutors are monitoring the recovery process, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said on Sunday.
The nature of the fire has raised questions about whether building code violations might have been a factor. City officials have said the warehouse, known locally as the Ghost Ship, was under scrutiny for complaints of illegal construction inside, and that an inspector visited the property on Nov. 17.
Municipal authorities also cited reports that people were living in the structure even though it was not permitted for residential use. A number of individuals who had been inside the warehouse described it as a potential fire trap.
The first floor of the building, which housed a group of artists who called themselves the Satya Yuga Collective, was a cluttered warren of partitioned studio spaces and rooms crammed with furniture, musical instruments, antiques, sculptures, wall-hangings and rugs, according to photos posted on social media before the fire and accounts of survivors and city officials.
Two recreational vehicles believed to have been used as living quarters and work space was found parked on the ground floor inside, Kelly said. The dance party was held on the second floor, which partially collapsed when the roof gave way in the fire.
The building lacked sprinklers or smoke detectors, and a makeshift stairway between the first and second floors was at least partly constructed from wooden pallets, officials said. The 10,000-square-foot structure, which occupied about half a city block, had just two exterior doorways. The recovery of three more bodies from the charred ruins brought the official fatality count to three dozen, a tally that made it the deadliest blaze in the United States since 100 people perished in a 2003 nightclub fire in West Warwick, Rhode Island.
About 70 percent of the Oakland site had been searched by the time recovery crews suspended operations in the early morning hours due to a wobbly exterior wall, but their work resumed at about 9 a.m. local time. As of Monday morning, 11 of the dead had been identified, police said.
Most victims were in their 20s and 30s, though some were teenagers, officials said. According to Kelly, the warehouse was known as a “safe-place” haven for young members of the city’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Some victims were from other parts of the country or overseas, including an unspecified number from South Korea, Finland and South America, Kelly said.
With many of the dead burned beyond recognition, families were asked to preserve items that might contain their DNA to help identification. Kelly said some had died from smoke inhalation. Officials were unsure how many people were present when the fire erupted. One survivor has estimated 60 to 70 were inside at the time.
The warehouse was one of many converted lofts on the east end of San Francisco Bay in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, a mostly Latino district where rents are generally lower than in the rest of city. Survivors recounted fast-spreading flames and smoke that quickly filled the interior, blinding occupants trying to flee.
Chris Nechodom, 30, said he was on the ground floor when he saw flames race across the ceiling. As he fled, he heard a loud noise and saw a plume of thick black smoke. “It blew out maybe 10 feet out of the entrance,” Nechodom said. “After that, I saw a few more people crawl out.”
Police will use body camera footage from first responders, emergency calls and other information to help determine the cause of the fire and whether criminal charges should be filed. Exhaustion has taken its toll on fire crews who have worked around the clock. One of those killed was the son of a sheriff’s deputy, Kelly said. “This tragedy has hit very close to home,” he said.