Authorities said they would work through the night to recover more victims of a deadly fire that raced through a converted warehouse crowded with people attending a Friday night concert in Oakland.
Nine bodies have been recovered, but Alameda County sheriff’s Sgt. Ray Kelly said officials were prepared for up to 40 fatalities. He said many of those inside the warehouse were young, some from foreign countries.
At an evening news conference, Kelly said that about two dozen people believed missing have been found. But at least two dozen remain missing, and officials believe the death toll will increase considerably as searchers make their way through the remains of the building. The building’s roof caved in, and debris will make the search effort difficult.
There is no known cause of the fire. While arson is not suspected, Kelly said investigators are on scene and nothing has been ruled out. The warehouse isn’t currently considered a crime scene.
Officials believe there likely are more fatalities because there are friends and family who still have not heard from some people who attended the concert. Kelly said there were relatively few injuries among those who escaped.
“This is just a tragedy, and there are no easy answers,” Kelly said. “This is not an easy task.”
He said it could take two days to complete to search for victims. Officials are bringing in cranes, bulldozers and excavating equipment to access the west side of the building. Cadaver dogs may also be used.
Officials are fingerprinting people, and four of the nine bodies have been removed.
Witnesses described a horrific fight for survival as people tried to flee the flames.
Al Garcia, who owns a store next to the warehouse, said he talked to two people who said they were 17 and 18 years old who got out of the building.
“They said that black, billowing smoke was coming down the stairs,” said Garcia, 62. “They couldn’t see anything in front of them, anything behind them. The only reason they got out was they heard voices outside. The voices directed them to where they were going.”
The teens said they paid $10 to get into the warehouse party, which they found online, Garcia said.
The fire is likely to be the deadliest in several years in California and the most destructive in the East Bay since the great 1991 Oakland Hills fire, which killed 25 people and injured more than 100 others.
City records cited allegations of at least three code violations at the building this year. In one complaint, city inspectors said there was complaint of an illegal building on the property as well as piles of trash.
“This property is a storage [facility], but the owner turned it into a trash recycling center. The yard became a trash collection site, and the main building was [remodeled] for residential,” according to city records.
City building and safety officials said Saturday afternoon that there was an open investigation into the warehouse and that inspectors had found evidence of blight. The building was permitted for use as a warehouse, not for housing.
They said that a party or concert at the property would have required a permit, which had not been granted. They also said there was no evidence of fire sprinklers or alarms in the building.
Oakland City Councilman Noel Gallo, who represents the district where the fire broke out, said neighbors have regularly complained about the building — particularly the fact that it had piles of trash and debris outside.
“We would complain to the manager that they had all that nonsense outside of his building, blocking sidewalks, blocking streets. And … he always had an attitude,” he said.
Gallo said he did not know whether people were living inside the warehouse. Asked whether the building had residential permits, he said: “Absolutely not.”
“The reality is, there are many facilities being occupied without permits,” he said. “They’re occurring on Oakland’s streets, especially in neighborhoods like mine.”
The property is one of several owned by Chor N. Ng, according to her daughter, Eva Ng, 36. She said the warehouse was leased as studio space for an art collective and not used as a dwelling.
“Nobody lived there,” she told The Times, adding, “It was an art collective.”
She said she had asked her leaseholders about the issue and had been reassured that nobody lived in the building. “They confirmed multiple times. They said sometimes some people worked through the night, but that is all,” she said.
The second floor had two exits, both wooden stairs, she said, adding that she believes the building also had smoke detectors. She was not familiar with comments by fire officials that the makeshift stairs consisted of packing crates.
Ng added that her mother felt terrible about the tragedy.
Kevin Longton, who lives at the Vulcan Lofts, less than a mile from where the fire took place, said the warehouse was well-known for holding rave-style dance parties. He went to one about a year ago, never saw any sprinklers and felt the place was an accident waiting to happen.
Inside, he said, were two floors with a huge open space on the first floor with lots of nooks and crannies. People had cordoned off loft-style sections on the first floor and decorated them with fabrics and curtains. More than a two dozen old pianos were strewn about the floor.
“There were people living there,” Longton said. “I’m sure of that."
People who previously lived there recalled a building that lacked fire sprinklers and had a staircase partly made of wooden pallets. Partygoers recalled a rabbit warren of rooms crammed with belongings — pianos, organs, antique furniture, doors and half-finished sculptures.
“It was a tinderbox,” said Brooke Rollo, 30, who lives less than a mile from the scene and had gone to parties there.
Photos on the warehouse’s Tumblr page show a maze of rooms, with walls and dividers made from pianos, boxes, salvaged doors and other materials. Wooden rafters were adorned with hanging lanterns, holiday lights, bicycles, stereo equipment and exposed wiring.
Ben Brandrett, a mental health researcher living in San Francisco, attended a performance at the warehouse and noticed that a staircase didn’t have a banister. “I remember thinking, ‘This seems sketchy.’”
Firefighters who responded to the Friday’s three-alarm blaze described the interior as a labyrinth. And officials said organizers of the warehouse concert never obtained a permit for the event, preventing city workers from inspecting exits, fire extinguishers and other vital safety features.
Organizers of the concert posted a statement describing the fire as an “unbelievable tragedy, a nightmare scenario. ... We are a very tight community of artists and we are all praying, sending love and condolences to everyone involved and their families.”
Witnesses said the warehouse, known locally as the Oakland Ghost Ship, was a collective where artists lived and worked.
Through the early-morning hours, people used the Facebook page to seek information about friends and loved ones who attended the concert. Some frantically listed the names of missing people and posted their photos, hoping to learn their fates.
“Making a new post with the names we currently have missing at the Sheriff’s office. PLEASE comment if you know 100% if any of these people are safe,” one person wrote.
“The police have asked for missing people’s photos and identifying features. Piercings, tattoos, clothing they were wearing, weight, birthday, hair color etc. they asked to post on this Facebook event. Please post info here,” wrote another.
At 10 a.m. Saturday, firefighters were dismantling one of the doors to the blackened building, which was covered with graffiti and had the word “GhostShip” painted outside. Sidewalks in front of the building were strewn with couches, window frames and other debris, and a charred smell permeated the air.
Rolando Jacobo, 41, the owner of nearby memorial headstone store Oakland Monuments, opened at 10 a.m. but had spent most of his morning standing outside his store, watching firefighters pull debris from the burned-out warehouse.
“I saw the fire when I was passing on the freeway last night, and I didn’t know if it was my building on fire,” he said.
Lee Leon, 50, a custodian at the Native American Health Center, got a call at 2 a.m. from a friend who also was driving on the freeway and saw the fire. Leon arrived at the Health Center, about a block away from the fire, shortly after. He took photos and called his boss to let him know that the Health Center was fine.
Both Leon and Jacobo said neighbors knew that the warehouse was used as an art studio and that people lived there. The warehouse often held private events “such as art shows,” but Leon, who has worked at the center for 17 years, said the residents were “low key.”
Seung Lee arrived to the warehouse about 11 p.m. to catch the concert with two friends.
They walked through the building’s maze-like first floor before heading upstairs where as many as 30 concertgoers were listening to live music, Lee said. One suggested they get some alcohol, so they headed to a nearby liquor store around 11:15 p.m.
Less than 10 minutes later, they returned to find thick, black smoke pouring out of the first floor windows of the warehouse and flames shooting out of the back of the building, he said.
“I froze in disbelief,” said Lee, who immediately called 911. “The hardest thing I’m having trouble processing are the people on the second floor. I saw them dancing and having a fun time and 10 minutes later they are trapped in this inferno.”
Lee, a freelance journalist, said the only way up to the second floor was by climbing a wooden staircase. He said he didn’t notice any other exits on the second floor. There were about 60 to 70 people in the warehouse, Lee said.
Anyone with information about survivors is urged to call (510) 382-3000.
Times Staff Writers Liam Dillon in Oakland and David Zahniser, Gale Holland, Laura J. Nelson, Ben Poston and Richard Winton in Los Angeles contributed to this report.