Death toll in Oakland warehouse fire climbs to 36

Posted at 6:39 AM, Dec 05, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-05 09:43:27-05

It’s already one of the city’s deadliest blazes, but Oakland, California, authorities say casualties are expected to rise as they investigate the fire at the warehouse-turned-arts-space known as Ghost Ship.

Rescuers had to halt their search late Sunday, and roughly half of the two-story building remains to be scoured, officials say.

At least 36 people have been confirmed dead, including teenagers and a deputy’s son, in a huge blaze that gutted a converted warehouse during an electronic dance party Friday night.

The fire spread so quickly that resident Jose Avalos had no time to help, he told CNN. He was in his loft when he heard someone call for an extinguisher. But before he could get down to offer his support, he heard someone say, “Fire! Everyone get out!”

He grabbed his dogs and rushed to the front door where he fell into others trying to escape, he said.

“By the time I was through the front doors, I could just see the flames coming and then they just engulfed the front archway of my studio,” he said. “I looked back and I just saw smoke everywhere. I couldn’t really see anything. Got out of the building and I just saw smoke and then flames coming out the doors and the windows.”

It could take weeks to identify victims through DNA and dental records, he said. Officials have asked victims’ families to preserve their loved ones’ personal belongings including hairbrushes and toothbrushes that could contain DNA samples. Alameda County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ray Kelly added that officials were also working with the transgender community to identify some of the victims.

The city’s district attorney has activated a team to launch a criminal investigation. An arson task force has also been formed.

“The scope of this tragedy is tremendous,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said Sunday.

Former California State Chief Fire Marshal James McMullen said firefighters and investigators must begin in the least-burned areas before moving “slowly and methodically to the area of origin, then to the point of origin.” All this must happen before determining a cause, he said.

One of deadliest fires ever in Oakland

The city released the names of seven victims. They were identified as Cash Askew, 22, David Cline, 35, Donna Kellogg, 32, Travis Hough, 35, all of Oakland; Nick Gomez-Hall, 25, of Coronado; Sara Hoda, 30, of Walnut Creek; and Brandon Chase Wittenauer, 32, of Hayward. The name of an eighth victim, a 17-year-old, will not be released, the city said.

Oakland Battalion Fire Chief Melinda Drayton cautioned the search could be a long process as firefighters work to remove debris “literally bucket by bucket in a methodical, thoughtful, mindful and compassionate way.”

“We had firefighters with basically coveralls and buckets and shovels taking bits of debris out into the vacant lot to be loaded into dump trucks and removed to an off-site location,” she said.

Drayton, a 19-year veteran, called it one of the deadliest fires in the city’s history — including a 1991 fire in Oakland Hills that killed 25 people.

Officials said the roof collapsed onto the second floor before parts of the second floor collapsed on the first floor. After firefighters extinguished the blaze Saturday, they said the building so unsafe that emergency responders couldn’t enter.

Southern California artist Anneke Hiatt, who has been monitoring the situation because she had friends there, said she is starting to lose hope.

“It just doesn’t seem that that’s a fire that’s survivable, so the reality, I think for a lot of us, is beginning to set in,” she said.

‘You could feel the heat of the flames’

Freelance journalist Sam Lefebvre said many people were just arriving at the warehouse when the fire began because the dance party was supposed to go very late. The warehouse is a “sort of live/work art space with a lot of old decorations and furniture,” Lefebvre told CNN.

An electronic music DJ known as Golden Donna was scheduled to perform.

By the time John Evanofski arrived at the warehouse, giant flames lit up the sky amid the billows of black smoke.

“You could feel the heat of the flames,” he said. “Most of us were crying or unable to react. It was so hot and so terrible knowing that so many of us were still inside.”

Concerned family and friends used social media to find loved ones and offer support.

‘I had to let him go’

For filmmaker and photographer Bob Mulé, the warehouse was both his home and his community.

Mulé, 27, said more than 20 people living in the warehouse paid rent and all helped in the creation of the space.

On Friday night, Mulé stopped upstairs to listen to some music he described as a “very tame setting.” Afterward, he headed downstairs to work on a painting. From his studio, he smelled smoke.

After seeing the flames, Mulé ran to find a fire extinguisher. He found one, but could not open the pin. When Mulé turned back to save his camera and laptop, he spotted a fellow artist who called out for help.

“I broke my ankle. I need you to pull me out,” a distraught Mulé recalled the artist saying. “The fire was just getting too hot and the smoke was just getting too bad and I had to leave him there.”

The Ghost Ship: A haven for artists in a gentrifying region

The building is known as the “Ghost Ship.” To the artists who lived and worked there, the Ghost Ship was a coveted haven in the Bay Area’s gentrifying landscape of skyrocketing rents and disappearing artist spaces.

Photos posted online show an interior containing drums, keyboards, guitars, clocks, ornate beds, plush sofas, mirrored dressers, tables, benches and artifacts. Exotic lamps hung from the ceiling, and paintings adorned some of the walls.

Darin Ranelletti, Oakland’s interim director of planning and building, told reporters Saturday the city had approved permits for the building to be used only as a warehouse, not for residences. City officials also had not signed off on a special permit for the event, Ranelletti said. In addition, firefighters found no evidence of sprinklers in the warehouse.

Last month, the warehouse’s owners had received notification of city code violations for hazardous trash and debris, property records show.

McMullen, the former chief fire marshal, said it was his understanding that the owner of the space had been approached about illegal occupancy and trash and debris strewn “around is the way of forming a fire hazard.”

‘One of those Catch-22 situations’

Josette Melchor, executive director of Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, told CNN that most people familiar with Ghost Ship knew it had issues, that it was not quite up to code. So it goes for many live/work warehouses, as they struggle to accommodate demand from artists for affordable spaces.

Fear of losing a home or displacing others keeps some people from reporting possible violations, she said.

“It’s one of those Catch-22 situations. A lot of us knew it was unsafe and it could have been fine had there been a smaller amount of people,” she said. “But when you start having big parties it crosses the line.”

CNN has reached out to the property owners for comment.