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With 80 percent of the burned-out building left to search, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office announced in an early morning press conference Sunday that a total of 24 bodies had been recovered from the Ghost Ship warehouse fire. A task force of fire department, police, sheriff's office personnel and others spent all of last night painstakingly sifting through debris at the site, a two-story live-work and event space in Oakland's Fruitvale district that first caught fire at 11:30 p.m. Friday and proceeded to burn wildly for four hours, trapping dozens of people inside. And in the 36 hours since, blame has been pointed multiple directions before the final tally of victims has been made, including toward the primary leaseholder and operator of the artist's collective who is said to have ignored warnings about the safety of the labyrinthine interior space.
As the New York Times reports, while only 20 percent of the building has been searched following delays Saturday due to fears of structural collapse, an unofficial list of names of the missing compiled by friends and family now stands at 35. The Alameda County Coroner has yet to officially identify any of the deceased, with the official count of nine on Saturday morning rising to 24 as of Sunday. Oakland Fire Department battalion chief Melinda Drayton described the scene of the search as, "It was quiet, it was heartbreaking." Officials expect the search to last several more days.
It remains unclear where in the building the fire began, but what is becoming clear from the accounts of survivors is that this was an extremely confusing space to navigate even in non-smoky conditions, and that the fire seemed to move very quickly, filling both floors with thick black smoke and quickly engulfing them in flames. Many described it in the immediate aftermath as a "tinderbox," and photos from before the fire showed an intricately and eclectically decorated bohemian space with many custom wood structures and sculptural details. The space apparently had two stairways down from a mezzanine level, though only one was known to most partygoers and it consisted of a wooden ramp and an irregular set of steps down made from stacked wooden pallets.
The Ghost Ship space, also known as the Satya Yuga artists' collective, was apparently home to 14 people at the time of the fire, and as CBS 5 reports, none of those 14 are among the dead. Whether they were in attendance at the party or not, the residents of the collective occupied a "maze of small workspaces" on the ground level, and were obviously all familiar with the path to the exit door.
The Associated Press and others have identified the operators of Ghost Ship as Derick Ion Almena and Micah Allison, saying that they were able to cover the rent on the building by charging other artists for these spaces, and they covered their own living expenses by throwing underground parties like the one on Friday night. Posts on social media in the wake of the fire suggested that Almena had brushed off many warnings from friends about safety issues in the building, and had daisy-chained stolen electricity from a neighbor that ran throughout the building.
The landlord has been identified as Chor N. Ng of Oakland, who owns multiple buildings in the city, and as the East Bay Express first reported on Saturday, the building at 1305 31st Avenue had been under investigation by the Department of Building Inspection for several weeks at the time of Friday's fire, and it appears they had tried to inspect the premises on at least one occasion but got no answer at the front door, as the East Bay Times reported.
Former resident Shelley Mack, who lived in the space for five months in 2014, told the East Bay Times that she had personally witnessed generator fires in the space, as well as artists employing butane torches, and there were showers on the second level that had hot water heated with propane. Another former resident described a place "strewn with electrical wires that sometimes sparked" and said it "often smelled like burning wires and wood."
Many are already discussing how the dead in this blaze are, indirectly, casualties of the Bay Area's intense and expensive housing market, which has driven artists to seek alternative and often illegal housing solutions like this over the last two decades.
And the tradition of warehouse parties, though not unique to Oakland, has been something that has thrived here in large part because of both the lively music community and the plethora of vacant and semi-vacant warehouse spaces in the East Bay. 24-year-old blogger and guitarist Diego Aguilar-Canabal tells the New York Times he had been to a party at Ghost Ship about a year ago, and estimates he's been to about three dozen underground parties like this, in warehouses, over the last two years. "The basic idea is people want to do loud things late at night, and industrial space is really good for that because there aren’t many neighbors to complain,” he tells the paper. “There’s a lot of anxiety about income inequality and class warfare, and a lot of these artists are trying to do the best they can to have a community.”
As the death toll rises, this fire has easily become one of the deadliest structure fires in state history, if not the deadliest, and one of the deadliest fires in the last decade across the country with many on Saturday drawing comparisons to the 2003 Station nightclub fire in Warwick, Rhode Island, which claimed the lives of 100 people largely because of the narrowness of an exit passageway.
A crowd-funding campaign to help victims of the fire has raised over $48,000 of a $60,000 goal, with the Oakland A's and Raiders matching donations up to $30,000. The Golden State Warriors, meanwhile, have pledge $50,000 to Unity Council, which resides in the same neighborhood of the fire, in order to aid victims.
Update 3:58 p.m.: In a Sunday afternoon press conference, Oakland city officials announced that 33 bodies have now been recovered from the site of the blaze, 40 percent of which had been searched as of 3:15 p.m.
The East Bay Times quotes Alameda County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly as saying “'We have no idea' how many victims are still inside," at the press event.
Victims include the son of an Alameda County Sheriff’s Office deputy and "foreign citizens," Kelly said, but declined to publicly name the victims, saying they would do so later on Sunday.
“That is an astronomical number. We’re still not done. they are working and pulling this building apart and dissecting it so we are really starting to get deeper into the building as we do that we continue to find more victims,” Kelly says.
The Alameda County Sheriff’s Officer’s Coroner’s Bureau is asking that family and friends of those missing retain DNA from the possible victims. “That could be hairbrushes, combs, or toothbrushes,” Coroner’s Bureau Cpt. Melanie Ditzenberger. said. “We ask those items be placed in a secure, clean paper sack. Do not send them to Coroner’s Bureau. We will ask for them as we need them.”
“It’s a terrible thing to have to say that and to have to come out here and do that, Kelly said. "But that’s what we are left to deal with here."
According to officials, the Alameda County District Attorneys Office has launched a criminal investigation into the fire. The East Bay Times reports that "Oakland Mayor Libby Schaff confirmed that a team of investigators from the city is at the scene and interviewing witnesses, but would not confirm whether criminal charges will be filed."