Death toll in ware­house fire could reach 40, o∞cials fear

Flames tear through mu­sic party in Oak­land; only es­cape was via stair­way made of wooden pal­lets.

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Paul Elias and Jocelyn Gecker

oak­land, calif.» Fire­fight­ers strug­gled to get to bod­ies in the rub­ble Satur­day af­ter a fire tore through a con­verted Oak­land ware­house dur­ing a late-night elec­tronic mu­sic party, killing at least nine peo­ple and mak­ing the charred struc­ture un­safe for emer­gency crews to en­ter. Of­fi­cials said they feared the death toll could rise as high as 40.

Of­fi­cials de­scribed the scene in­side the ware­house, which had been il­le­gally con­verted into artist stu­dios, as a death trap that made it im­pos­si­ble for many par­ty­go­ers to es­cape the Fri­day night fire. And a day later, the maze of de­bris and dev­as­ta­tion was com­pli­cat­ing ef­forts to ex­tract the bod­ies.

“It was just a labyrinth of lit­tle ar­eas. We knew peo­ple were in there, and we were try­ing to get them out. But it was just a labyrinth,” Oak­land Deputy Fire Chief Mark Hoff­mann told re­porters Satur­day af­ter­noon.

He said that fire­fight­ers had to stop their search and res­cue op­er­a­tion Satur­day af­ter­noon for safety rea­sons and shore up the struc­ture, but they ex­pected to re­sume later in the day. The build­ing’s roof had col­lapsed into the sec­ond floor, which in places fell to the bot­tom floor.

Oak­land of­fi­cials said they had opened an in­ves­ti­ga­tion just last month into the ware­house af­ter nu­mer­ous com­plaints filed by neigh­bors who said trash was pil­ing up out­side the prop­erty 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 Nov. 17 but could not get in­side the build­ing. The city has not con­firmed that peo­ple were liv­ing in­side.

One sur­vivor, how­ever, said that 18 artists lived in­side the ware­house.

Bob Mule said he was one of the artists liv­ing in the col­lec­tive space. He told KGO-TV that he and another per­son smelled smoke and spot­ted the fire in a back cor­ner and started yelling.

“The fire went up re­ally, re­ally, re­ally quickly,” he said.

Mule said he tried to help some­one who

had an in­jured an­kle but couldn’t. “There was a lot of stuff in the way, the flames were too much,” Mule said, trail­ing off. “I hope, I hope he’s OK.”

The ware­house was known as the “Oak­land Ghost Ship.” Its web­site 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.

The web­site in­cluded ad­ver­tise­ments for var­i­ous elec­tronic mu­sic par­ties. Fri­day night’s event fea­tured mu­si­cian Golden Donna’s 100% Silk West Coast tour. A mes­sage on the group’s web­site said “Joel is safe, but like many peo­ple he is heart­bro­ken.”

It’s un­clear what sparked the fire. But of­fi­cials said the clut­ter served as a tin­der­box and there were no sprin­klers in­side.

“Some­thing as sim­ple as a cig­a­rette could have started this,” Alameda County sher­iff’s Sgt. Ray Kelly said, adding that 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.”

More than 15 hours af­ter the fire started, res­cue crews had re­cov­ered only four bod­ies from the build­ing and dozens of peo­ple were still un­ac­counted for, Kelly said. He said the res­cue op­er­a­tion was ex­pected to take a min­i­mum of two days. None of the nine dead have been iden­ti­fied.

Fifty to 100 peo­ple were be­lieved to have been at the party when the fire started around 11:30 p.m. Fri­day, of­fi­cials said.

Oak­land Fire Chief Teresa De­loche-Reed said at least 25 peo­ple were un­ac­counted for.

The vic­tims were be­lieved to be peo­ple in their 20s, Kelly said. He said as many as 40 may have per­ished and that the coroner is pre­par­ing for a “mass ca­su­alty event” that could in­clude vic­tims from other coun­tries.

Pan­icked friends and fam­ily mem­bers posted mes­sages on the group’s Face­book page try­ing to find out if their loved ones were among the dead. Those search­ing for the miss­ing were sent to a lo­cal sher­iff’s of­fice, where Dan Vega was anx­iously await­ing news. He had been un­able to find his younger brother or his brother’s girl­friend.

Vega said he was not sure if the two were at the party Fri­day night but that his brother likes to go to raves and he had not been able to reach him Satur­day. His girl­friend’s car was still parked at a tran­sit sta­tion in San Bruno, south of San Fran­cisco.

Fight­ing tears, Vega said he is frus­trated that au­thor­i­ties hadn’t been able to tell him any­thing about his 22-year-old brother.

“I just want to go over there. I have my work boots on. I’m ready to go,” Vega said. “Just give me some gloves. I’ll help out any way, shape or form, I don’t care. This is in­fu­ri­at­ing. I don’t know where my brother’s at. I just want to find him.”

Mourn­ers on Satur­day place flow­ers near the scene of a deadly ware­house fire in Oak­land, Calif. Josh Edelson, The Associated Press

A fire­fighter climbs a lad­der af­ter the Oak­land fire that may have killed dozens of peo­ple. Josh Edelson, AP

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