California warehouse fire kills at least nine at dance party

By Reuters/Rory Carroll, Peter Henderson    December 4, 2016 | 09:59 am GMT+7
California warehouse fire kills at least nine at dance party
Flames rise from the top of a warehouse, which caught fire during a dance party in Oakland, California, U.S. December 3, 2016. Photo by Seung Lee/Handout via Reuters

Nine fatalities had been confirmed, and authorities were "expecting the worst" as they sought to account for "a couple of dozen" people who were reported missing.

A fire that erupted during a dance party in a warehouse in Oakland, California, killed at least nine people and left about two dozen missing, raising fears the death toll would rise, authorities said on Saturday.

City and Alameda County officials said they expected to find more victims once the burned-out ruins of the two-story building, which housed an artists' collective, were shored up and recovery teams were able to safely enter the structure.

The blaze started at about 11:30 p.m. on Friday in the city's Fruitvale district, a mostly Latino, blue-collar area that is also home to many artists living and working in converted lofts.

The cause of the blaze and exact number of casualties remained undetermined, said Oakland Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed, who called it the worst single-structure fire she had seen in her career.

Still, nine fatalities had been confirmed, and authorities were "expecting the worst" as they sought to account for "a couple of dozen" people who were reported missing, Sergeant Ray Kelly, a spokesman for the county sheriff, told an afternoon news conference. Off-camera, he referred to "dozens" of missing.

Drone aircraft equipped with thermal-imaging technology were sent inside the gutted structure looking for any signs of life, but none was found, Kelly said.

The remains of just one of the nine confirmed dead had been recovered as of Saturday because the warehouse was still too unstable to enter, said Deputy Fire Chief Mark Hoffmann.

He said about a dozen people survived the blaze, including one who went to a local hospital for treatment.

The party was taking place on the second floor of the building, which had just two exits, one for each floor. A makeshift staircase appeared to be constructed from pallets.

The warehouse roof collapsed onto the second floor of the building during the fire, according to authorities, and portions of the second floor caved in on the first story.

Smoke rises from a smoldering building where a fire broke out during an electronic dance party late Friday evening, resulting in at least nine deaths and many unaccounted for in the Fruitvale district of Oakland, California, U.S. December 3, 2016. Photo by Reuters/Stephen Lam

Smoke rises from a smoldering building where a fire broke out during an electronic dance party late Friday evening, resulting in at least nine deaths and many unaccounted for in the Fruitvale district of Oakland, California, U.S. December 3, 2016. Photo by Reuters/Stephen Lam

Complaints and code violations

Authorities said they did not suspect arson, but investigators want to find out if the building, which was partitioned into artists' studios, had a history of building code violations.

The city had received complaints about unpermitted construction at the building and opened an investigation, but an inspector failed to gain access to the structure on November 7, and the inquiry remained open, according to the city's buildings and planning chief, Darin Ranelletti.

He said the city was aware of reports that people were living there, but no permits had been issued for habitation. It was unclear, he said, whether special permits would be needed for the artists who had set up shop inside.

Many of the victims were young people in their 20s or 30s, authorities said.

"It's just so hard to accept that some really wonderful people's lives got cut short," said Jenny Yang, 34, an artist and activist who was waiting for news of missing friends at Eli's, an Oakland bar that opened early on Saturday as a gathering spot.

Video footage posted on social media showed flames shooting from the structure, which was adorned with elaborate graffiti and colorful murals, as fire vehicles pumped plumes of water and heavy smoke engulfed the neighborhood.

Authorities have said they did not know how many people were at the party or how many lived on the premises.

'Like a concrete kiln'

But one eyewitness, who said he left the party to buy liquor and returned to find flames shooting from the second floor, said on Twitter that he saw about 60 to 70 people in the building.

"It was an inferno," Seung Y. Lee recounted in a post on his verified Twitter account.

Lee, who declined an interview, tweeted that the entire first floor was "covered in wood - antiques, furniture, etc. Beautiful but labyrinthine." He also described the wooden stairway as rickety and hazardous.

A Facebook event page showed 176 people planned to attend the party, which featured electronic music performances.

Ben Koss, an Oakland resident and musician, told Reuters he was on his way to the party with friends and arrived late to find smoke billowing from the warehouse moments before firefighters arrived.

"We tore down a fence so people could get out, but nobody came out," he said. "It was like a concrete kiln."

Parents and others shared contact information on the page and asked anyone with information about the missing to call. "ANY information please!" wrote a woman looking for her son.

At a sheriff’s station not far from the fire, about a dozen people were waiting on Saturday for updates from authorities.

“I don’t have high hopes,” said a woman with four friends among the missing, declining to give her name. “We’ve just spent the night calling hospitals and listening to police scanners.”

The warehouse contained makeshift artist studios separated by curtains and other partitions, the fire chief said. The interior was cluttered with "a flea market of items," she said. There was no evidence of any smoke detectors in the building.

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