At least nine people were killed and 25 others unaccounted for after a massive blaze ripped through a warehouse party in Oakland late Friday, but officials are preparing for the death toll to rise.
In what is being described as one of the deadliest structure fires in the U.S. in recent history, the fire gutted the 1300 block of 31st Avenue at about 11:30 p.m., Oakland Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed said. Officials found no evidence of smoke alarms or sprinklers at the now-destroyed building, where the charred roof collapsed onto the second floor, which in places dropped onto the first floor.
On social media, people referred to the building as the “Oakland Ghost Ship,” an artist's conclave. City officials described as a “a labyrinth of artist studios."
A Facebook event page indicates that the fire sparked during a Golden Donna show, which was promoted by Los Angeles-based dance label 100% Silk. Bob Mule, a survivor, said the space is also occupied by a 24-hour artist collective that he belongs to.
Battalion Chief Lisa Baker said the building was "subdivided into other occupancies" and between 50 and 100 people were partying on the upper floor. Mark Hoffman, operations chief at the Oakland Fire Department, described the building as a "labyrinth," dotted with wood workers, sculptors, painters and more.
However, Darin Ranelletti, of the Oakland Planning Department, said the building was only permitted for use as a warehouse. City officials are investigating whether people were living in the warehouse illegally before Friday's lethal fire.
The party that young electronic music fans flocked to, Ranelletti said, "would require a special permit from the city, and such a permit had not been issued."
Reed confirmed there were "nine known fatalities" around 7 a.m. Saturday, and that at least 25 others were unaccounted for. Around 9 a.m., Alameda County sheriff's Sgt. JD Nelson said officials are preparing for about 40 deaths based on the number of confirmed fatalities and numerous reports of missing people.
Six coroners' tents were set up outside the building Saturday, while friends and strangers alike left flowers on a fence near the destroyed building.
Later in the day, Sheriff's spokesman Ray Kelly said nine bodies had been recovered and taken to the coroner's office, but declined to "play the numbers game." Several dozen people initially reported as missing have been located and reunited with their families, but a few dozen more remain unaccounted for, he said.
While some families' fears were put at ease, others remain in an "unknown stage" and are "grieving," Kelly said.
The inferno reduced the building to a smoldering skeleton, and Kelly said that weakened walls have complicated and delayed the recovery and identification process. Fire crews were forced to withdraw from the unstable structure because it needs to be shored up.
Officials will need to use heavy equipment, including cranes, dump trucks, excavators and bulldozers, to create a safe path into the building. Crews have to work carefully, though, Kelly said, so bodies aren't scooped up with debris.
It may take "considerable" time before victims are identified, according to Kelly. Investigators will be at the scene through late Sunday, and possibly into early Monday.
Reed emphasized that just because someone is unaccounted for does not mean the person is dead. Officials are working to determine if attendees had taken themselves to the hospital or simply left the warehouse.
"One of the issues," Reed said, was that the building had only "one way up and down from the second floor and it’s my understanding that stairwell was kind of like a makeshift, that they put it together with pallets."
When she tried to enter the building, Reed said she was "just able to get in about 10 feet." Kelly added that it has proven "tricky" to maneuver in the building because of debris, downed beams, a collapsed roof and leaking water.
"This is not an easy task by any means," Kelly said.
The victims are primarily people in their 20s and 30s, but some hail from foreign countries, Kelly said.
"It appears that people either made it out or didn’t make it out," he said. "There’s not a lot of other injuries that have been reported to us at this time."
The first fire crews on the scene "found a building that had smoke and flames coming out of three sides," Baker said. They made an "aggressive" attack to put the fire out, but conditions changed, forcing them to "retreat" from the then-"defensive" blaze.
It took 11 fire engines, three fire trucks and 52 firefighters "four hours to get the fire out," Baker said.
Reed said that 25 people were killed in the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, but "as a single-structure fire, I don't think Oakland has had a fatality of this magnitude in a while."
"It's going to be a huge impact, not just on the firefighters but on the families, on this community and the city as a whole," she added.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said in a statement that the fire was an "immense tragedy" and thanked emergency responders.
"Our focus right now is on the victims and their families and ensuring that we have a full accounting for everyone who was impacted by this tragedy," she said.
The Oakland Athletics tweeted their support for those affected by the fire. "We will work together to heal our community," the team wrote. The A's also sought donations and pledged to match contributions up to $30,000.
Event organizers have created a list on Facebook to try to figure out who is alive and accounted for. Families and friends took to Facebook and Twitter to express condolences for those who had died in the fire and search for those still missing. Vigils were also held Saturday evening.
"If there was any kind of things wrong with that building, like maybe it was an old, dilapidated building or something like that, why would somebody have a rave there?" he asked. "And if the rave was there, and it was an underground rave, why did the cops let it happen?"
Oakland property records indicate that the warehouse is owned by the Chor N. Ng trust.
A family member speaking on behalf of Ng said they were "trying to figure out what happened just like everyone else" and were "sorry to hear of [the tragedy] and those injured and killed."
Multiple complaints have been filed against the property's owner, records show. A Housing Habitability Complaint, involving an illegal interior building structure, was filed as recently as Nov. 14. City officials were in the process of investigating the complaint when the fire broke out.
A complaint was also filed on Nov. 13 for garbage piling up on the property, some of which was hazardous, records show. There have also been reports of blight at the building.
On Nov. 17, investigator tried to inspect the building but could not even enter, Ranelletti said.
However, in its defense, the Ng family said they didn't regularly communicate with the tenants, who had been renting the property for a few years. They also disputed Reed's comments about the makeshift staircase and said it is a full stairway in the back of the building, which was constructed to code.
A neighbor, who asked not to be identified, said the area is home to a mixture of Latinos and artists. When the warehouse first caught fire, many said, "Oh, that must be the hippie house."
It is common knowledge, the neighbor said, that artists lived inside the warehouse and left all sorts of junk — including RVs and odds-and-ends —outside, drawing scavengers.
An arson task force is investigating the cause of the fire, but there’s no reason to suspect arson at this time, officials say. "We will be at this crime scene for weeks to come," Kelly said.
The Alameda County Sheriff's Office and American Red Cross have set up a family assistance center at 2425 E. 12th St. Grief counselors will be on hand. People can call 510-382-3000 for help.
NBC Bay Area's Liz Wagner contributed to this report.