OAKLAND, Calif. — One of the deadliest fires in recent U.S. history began amid a cluttered collective of artist studios known as the Ghost Ship and spread quickly through a two-story warehouse that did not have fire sprinklers, killing at least 36 people and possibly more.
“Help me!” shouted partygoers who had gathered at the warehouse for a Friday evening of music and dancing in East Oakland’s Fruitvale district, only to find themselves trapped in an inferno.
Firetrucks arrived within three minutes, officials said, but nothing could be done to stop the fast-spreading flames soon enough. The sky was lit with a huge fireball, ignited by an array of artisan works, guitars, pianos, bookshelves, bowls and countless other tinderlike pieces.
Bob Mule, a photographer who worked at the warehouse, told the local NBC affiliate that he saw the fire coming from the back left corner of the building. He heard a friend with a broken ankle calling for help. Mule said he raced to the friend, but “there was a lot of stuff in the way and the flames were too much . . . I had to let him go.”
Standing outside the warehouse as flames continued to burn through the walls and the roof, with an arm bandaged from wounds suffered during his flight from the fire, Mule said he had not heard whether his friend had made it out.
As the fire raged, city officials met with dozens of families who had undertaken anguished searches for relatives. The rescue effort quickly turned into a salvage operation.
Authorities on Monday raised the death toll to 36 as search teams pulled more bodies from the charred debris — many victims burned beyond recognition.
One survivor estimated that at least 50 people had been in the building.
On Sunday, the coroner’s office released the names of some of those who didn’t make it out: Cash Askew, 22, David Cline, 24, Travis Hough, 35, and Donna Kellogg, 32, all of Oakland; Nick Gomez-Hall, 25, of Coronado, Calif.; Sara Hoda, 30, of Walnut Creek, Calif., and Brandon Chase Wittenauer, 32, of Hayward, Calif.
Firefighters moved slowly in the search, walking amid fallen beams and smoldering ruins looking for bodies. They undertook their mission at great risk, with ceilings and floors in danger of collapse. They doused flames by passing buckets down the line. The firefighters ranged in experience from a few months to 30 years, but all were affected by the intensity of the blaze and the piles of bodies they encountered along the way, officials said.
The warehouse had long been the subject of complaints. Local officials said they were alerted to possible code violations on Nov. 13, but they could not get inside the structure when they visited four days later. Local news outlets reported that a number of artists used the building as their sleeping quarters as well as studios.
Asked on Sunday about the inspection, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf (D) said: “The complaint alleged there was blight and external trash and debris, not just around the building but in the adjacent lot that is owned by the same owner. They also alleged there was illegal or unpermitted construction inside, and possible residential use . . . The inspector was able to document the external blight but was unable to gain access to the building. So that investigation had remained open and an initial notice of violation was issued to the owner with regard to the blight.”
Local officials said it was the deadliest fire they could recall in the city, and it ranked as one of the worst structural fires in recent U.S. history. The deadliest fire in recent years occurred in 2003, when 100 people died at a West Warwick, R.I., nightclub called the Station.
The fire began about 11:30 p.m. Friday, as partygoers gathered on the second floor to listen to a music group called Golden Donna. The band played before a dance floor of about 2,500 square feet inside the roughly 10,000-square-foot warehouse.
By the time firefighters arrived at the scene, the staircase had burned away, Mark Hoffmann, deputy chief of the Oakland Fire Department, said Saturday.
Firefighters used special equipment to breach a wall and then deployed the most basic means to carefully make their way inside, clearing debris with shovels and other hand tools, and dousing flames with buckets passed from one person to another.
“We had firefighters with basically coveralls and buckets and shovels, taking bits of debris out into the vacant lot, to be then loaded into dump trucks and removed to an off-site location,” Melinda Drayton of the Oakland Fire Department said at a news conference near the scene. “This will be a long and arduous process, but we want to make sure we are respecting the victims, their families and our firefighters’ safety to work slowly and carefully through the building.”
Drayton said she was inside the structure and watched “the somber approach that [firefighters] took to this search. It was quiet, it was heartbreaking.”
She said crews found 10 of the victims in the middle of the building. Four of them were close together, and the other six were within 10 feet. Three more were found on the east side of the building, Drayton said.
Sgt. Ray Kelly, spokesman for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, said the death toll will go up.
“We will be here for days and days to come,” Kelly said. “We anticipate that the number of victims will rise and will increase.”
Questions remain about whether electrical issues, pyrotechnics or errant candles or cigarettes had started the fire. Fire officials said the building did not have sprinklers. A criminal investigation team was sent to the site to preserve the option of a possible prosecution, officials said.
The building’s interior featured a tangled network of antique furniture, artwork, musical instruments, wooden lofts, tapestries and oddities, such as mannequin parts, according to a Tumblr blog that appears to show the building.
Al Garcia, 62, said the warehouse across the street from his business was fully engulfed when he walked over about 12:30 a.m. Saturday. Officials say the fire broke out an hour earlier during a rave party that was attended by more than 50 people.
Garcia said he saw two teenagers sitting on a sidewalk, crying. They were at the party, they told him, and were the last ones to get out. Garcia asked what happened.
“It got dark, and smoke took us over,” one of the teens told him, Garcia said.
They couldn’t see where they were going, they told Garcia, but they knew several people were behind them, also trying to get out. “When we turned around, nobody came out behind us,” one of the teens said, according to Garcia.
The music event’s Facebook page was filled with inquiries on Saturday from people looking for their loved ones or offering their assistance to families and friends of the victims.
Michael Rosen, who had been at the party Friday night, said there were no more than 75 people in attendance. “This was a very intimate gathering,” he said. “It wasn’t a wild, out-of-control party where things got out of hand.”
Carmen Brito and Nikki Kelber, who lived at the warehouse, spoke in an interview on Sunday about their emotions as they tried to process what had happened. They survived the fire but lost everything in the process except for the clothes on their backs, handouts from friends and, in Kelber’s case, her cat, Mookie, which she managed to carry out of the burning building after escaping from her first-floor apartment.
“Emotionally, for everyone who was a resident there, we are going back and forth between feeling like ‘Oh, my god, I almost died,’ to ‘Oh, my god, I lost everything,’ to ‘Oh, my god, these people died in our home,’ ” Brito said.
Kelber said,about 23 people lived in the building. “It was one of the most amazing, beautiful spaces you could ever see. It was so creative and so inspiring as an artist,” she said. “There was always somebody working on another project, always somebody to bounce ideas off. Max would be tattooing or working on a piece of jewelry . . . Anthony was sewing in the back, and Carmen was painting in the back and someone else is doing visual artistry . . . These weren’t just roommates, and these weren’t just people who lived in a building that you didn’t talk to. These people were part of your daily lives.”
Friends and family members of the concertgoers also cobbled together a list of missing people in a shared Google Docs spreadsheet. They included identifying features and contact numbers. Forty names were listed as of Saturday evening; seven were marked either safe or in the hospital. The list is now private.
Oakland Fire Chief Teresa Deloach-Reed said fire officials will verify those names against the ones they have compiled.
“This is pretty tragic for us,” Deloach-Reed said. “It is hitting this community pretty hard. I don’t even want to talk about how the families and friends are feeling. We have a community that’s hurting.”
The building was considered to be an “artist collective,” as city officials put it, with spaces for artists to work.
“It was beautiful,” said Pete Veilleux, a friend of several of the building’s residents and the owner of a nearby native-plant nursery called East Bay Wilds. “It was like an art gallery, but people lived there.”
As darkness fell here, the makeshift memorial on the corners of East 12th Street and 31st Avenue continued to grow. Close to two dozen bouquets of flowers were laid on the sidewalk, and the same number of candles were lit in remembrance of victims of the tragedy. Several names — including Ara Jo, Draven and Johnny — were left on signs and postcards and Post-it notes as ways to remember them.
Kranish and Guerra reported from Washington.