Death toll in California loft fire rises to 24, more victims expected

Image: Flames rise from the top of a warehouse, which caught fire during a dance party in Oakland, California,U.S. December 3, 2016. Seung Lee/Handout via Reuters

By Rory Carroll

OAKLAND, Calif. (Reuters) – Recovery teams have found 24 bodies in the charred ruins of an Oakland, California loft building after a fire broke out during a weekend dance party, and the death toll is expected to rise, authorities said on Sunday.

Sergeant Ray Kelly, a spokesman for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, said two dozen bodies were located as authorities sifted through the debris-filled shell of the two-story building, which was used by an artists’ collective.

He told a press briefing that the death toll would likely rise in what fire officials called the deadliest blaze in the city’s history. He said the names of the victims would be released “in the coming hours” after their families were notified.

“In regards to the amount of people that are still missing, yes, it’s a significant number, Kelly said.

“We’ve given you a number of 24,” he said, referring to the dead. “That number will go up.”

Only 20 percent of the building had been searched in the past 12 hours, said Melinda Drayton, battalion chief at the Oakland Fire Department. She said the origin of the fire had yet to be determined and the cause was still unknown.

Firefighters have gone through the building searching the debris, “bucket by bucket,” Drayton said.

“It was quiet, it was heartbreaking,” she said, referring to the search. “This will be a long and arduous process.”

The warehouse, which served as a base for the Ghost Ship Artists Collective, was one of many converted lofts in the city’s Fruitvale district, a mostly Latino area where rents are generally lower than in the rest of Oakland.

Many of the victims were believed to be in their 20s and 30s, and the fire sent ripples of anxiety through the Bay Area’s large art and music community.

“I am still in disbelief, but I hope my friends who were in the Oakland Ghost Ship fire and are still unaccounted for are okay,” Joanna Blanche Lioce, a bartender at Bottom of the Hill, a popular music venue in San Francisco, wrote on Facebook.

Authorities said on Saturday that nine bodies were initially discovered inside the shell of the structure and that about 25 people were believed to be missing. On Sunday, officials did not provide a specific number of people who were still missing.

The fire erupted at about 11:30 p.m. PST on Friday (0730 GMT Saturday) during the party featuring electronic dance music that dozens of people attended.

The recovery operation and investigation into how the blaze started had been delayed for hours until workers could enter safely on Saturday evening. The roof had collapsed into the second floor and in some spots, the second story had fallen into the first.

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 code violations.

The party was taking place on the second floor of the building, which had just two exits, officials said. There was no evidence of any smoke detectors or sprinklers, officials said.

The city had received complaints about construction without permits at the building and opened an investigation, but an inspector failed to gain access on Nov. 7, and the inquiry remained open, Darin Ranelletti, the city’s buildings and planning chief, said on Saturday.

Mayor Libby Schaaf said the building was designated for use as a warehouse only.

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

(Additional reporting by Tim Mclaughlin in Chicago; Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

Copyright 2015 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.

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