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Oakland fire's death toll to rise as slow recovery process begins

Oakland warehouse fire

OAKLAND, Calif. -- It will be a slow recovery process and investigation into the deadly Oakland fire that killed at least nine people, city and fire officials said on Saturday.

“We know there are bodies in there that we cannot get to,” said Alameda County Sheriff’s office spokesman Ray Kelly.

Kelly said that they have located a “couple dozen people” who were believed to be missing, but they still believe there will be about two dozen more victims. 

“We still have a lot of families who are in that unknown stage,” Kelly said. 

Investigation begins into deadly Oakland fire

There are nine confirmed fatalities in the fire, which broke out at a warehouse that was being used as a residential artist colony, but officials said there are “a couple dozen” victims they have to identify. These nine bodies were “easily accessible,” said Kelly.

Based on the difficulty to getting inside the building, officials can only identify nine fatalities so far. According to fire officials, the roof collapsed onto the second story, which then collapsed onto the first story. 

Fire officials said Saturday afternoon that they had to halt the recovery process because parts of the building had been deemed too unsafe, but by 3:30 p.m. PST, the Alameda County Sheriff’s office tweeted it had begun the recovery process again.

“This is a devastating scene,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said at a news conference Saturday afternoon. “This is complicated and it is going to take us time to do the methodical, thorough investigation that these families deserve.”

Officials said people either escaped from the cluttered building or died inside, where the only way down from the second story was via a stairwell constructed entirely of wooden pallets. 

“It appears that either you got out or you got trapped inside,” Kelly said. 

While fire officials continue to search for survivors of a deadly warehouse fire in Oakland, California, family and friends are concerned for a New Jersey man who is among the missing, CBS New York reports

Alex Ghassan recently moved from Jersey City to Oakland, and it is believed he attended a party at the warehouse Friday night before the fire broke out.

“I want to send love to his family, from my family to his family. And for them to hopefully get good news and have peace as soon as possible,” his friend Richardine Bartee told CBS2.

Firefighters used chain saws and axes Saturday to cut through the debris of the cluttered building in a gritty neighborhood of the San Francisco Bay Area city, where the fire broke out about 11:30 p.m. Friday. 

CBS News justice reporter Paula Reid reports that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has joined local firefighters to investigate.

On the ground in Oakland after deadly warehouse fire

There were numerous violations against the building, and there were no permits issued for people to live in the building, officials said on Saturday. Fire officials said there were no evidence of sprinklers. 

Oakland Fire Chief Teresa Deloche-Reed said at least another 25 people were unaccounted for in what authorities were calling the most deadly building fire in the city in recent memory. The victims were believed to be young people in their 20s, Kelly said. He earlier said as many as 40 may have perished and that the coroner was preparing for a “mass casualty event” that could include victims from other countries. 

The warehouse was known as the “Oakland Ghost Ship.” Its website showed pictures of a bohemian, loft-like interior made of wood and cluttered with rugs, old sofas and a garage-sale like collection of pianos, paintings, turntables, statues and other items.

A fire broke out on Dec. 2, 2016 at a warehouse in Oakland, California. CBS SF Bay Area

The website included advertisements for various electronic music parties. On Friday night, there was an event featuring musician Golden Donna’s 100% Silk West Coast tour.

Panicked friends and family posted messages on the group’s Facebook page trying to find out if their loved ones were among the dead. Those searching for the missing were sent to a local sheriff’s office, where Dan Vega was anxiously awaiting news. He had been unable to find his younger brother or his brother’s girlfriend. Vega said he was not sure if the two were at the party Friday night but that his brother likes to go to raves and he had not been able to reach him Saturday. His girlfriend’s car was still parked at a transit station in San Bruno, south of San Francisco.

Fighting tears, Dan Vega said he’s frustrated authorities hadn’t been able to tell him anything about his 22-year-old brother.

A charred wall is seen outside a warehouse after a fire broke out during an electronic dance party, resulting in at least nine deaths and many unaccounted for in the Fruitvale district of Oakland, California, Dec. 3, 2016.
A charred wall is seen outside a warehouse after a fire broke out during an electronic dance party, resulting in at least nine deaths and many unaccounted for in the Fruitvale district of Oakland, California, Dec. 3, 2016. REUTERS

“I just want to go over there. I have my work boots on, I’m ready to go,” Vega said. “Just give me some gloves. I’ll help out any way, shape or form, I don’t care. This is infuriating. I don’t know where my brother’s at. I just want to find him.”

It was not immediately clear what started the fire, Deloche-Reed said. She said 50 to 100 people were believed to have been at the party when the fire started and that clutter “made it difficult for people to escape.”

The warehouse was partitioned into artist studios and was packed with furniture, mannequins, statues, lamps, and other objects and did not have a clear entry or exit path, the fire chief said.

Coroner examining Oakland warehouse fire

“There is still a large portion of the building that still needs to be searched,” she said. “There is large timber and debris that will need to be removed and it’s going to have to be removed in a slow and methodical way.”

The fire caused the building’s roof to collapse and investigators were having trouble entering parts of the warehouse to search for any remaining bodies because the structure was deemed unsafe, Deloche-Reed said.

One survivor said he struggled to find a working fire extinguisher. “It was too hot, too much smoke, I had to get out of there,” Bob Mule, a photographer and artist who lives at the building and suffered minor burns, told the East Bay Times. “I literally felt my skin peeling and my lungs being suffocated by smoke. I couldn’t get the fire extinguisher to work.”

Oakland police urged those concerned about missing people to call the Alameda County Sheriff’s Coroner’s Bureau at 510-382-3000.

The office said coroners were also at the scene Saturday morning and unavailable for comment.