OAKLAND, Calif. — Authorities in Oakland, California, said on Tuesday they do not expect the death toll from a blaze that engulfed a converted warehouse during a dance party to rise above 36, but could not rule it out as they continued picking through debris.
Emergency workers have searched and cleared 90 percent of the charred building, officials told a news conference. Searchers were still sifting through the rest of the structure, with some parts too unstable to safely work in.
“We’re going to continue the process until absolutely every piece of debris is removed from the building (and) every area has been searched,” said Oakland Police Department spokeswoman Johnna Watson.
The cause of the fire has yet to be determined. It erupted late on Friday in a sprawling two-story building known as the Ghost Ship that was leased to an artists’ collective.
The coroner’s office has completed autopsies on half the 36 people confirmed to have died, Alameda County Sheriff’s Office spokesman J.D. Nelson said by phone.
Smoke inhalation, which is typical for a major fire of this kind, was found to be the cause of death in all those examined, Nelson said.
Survivors said flames spread quickly and billowing thick, black smoke blinded and choked those struggling to flee. One victim’s body was positioned in a way to shield another person, who also died, Nelson said.
Officials have said arson was not immediately suspected. But charges ranging from involuntary manslaughter to murder could be brought, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley told reporters on Monday.
The dance party was held on the second floor, which partially collapsed. Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern told reporters on Tuesday that investigators with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have identified a refrigerator as possibly being where the fire sparked.
The 10,000-square-foot (900-square-meter) building lacked sprinklers and smoke detectors, and wooden pallets partially formed a makeshift stairway between its first and second floors, officials said on Monday. It had just two exterior doors.
The manager of the warehouse, Derrick Almena, broke down on Tuesday during an interview with NBC’s “Today” program and declined to answer questions about the conditions of the building before the fire. He did say he was sorry.
“I’d rather get on the floor and be trampled by the parents,” Almena said. “I’d rather let them tear at my flesh than answer these ridiculous questions.”
Possible safety violations were expected to be one aspect of the probe.
Oakland officials had issued multiple violation notices on the warehouse property over the past several years for trash, debris and rodents, according to city building department records.
Most families of the victims have been notified of deaths, officials said on Tuesday. One unidentified victim remains.
Among the dead was Chelsea Dolan, 33, a San Francisco-based musician who, according to her Facebook page, was scheduled to perform as a DJ at the warehouse on Friday night.
“She was someone so talented, she could have been a diva if she wanted to, but she never was,” Dolan’s friend, Gehno Sanchez Aviance, said on Sunday.
Thousands gathered for a candlelight vigil in Oakland on Monday night to mourn the dead.
— by Curtis Skinner | Reuters