The Slatest

Death Toll in Oakland Warehouse Fire Reaches 30, Likely to Keep Rising

Smoke rises from a smoldering building where a fire broke out during an electronic dance party late Friday evening in Oakland, California on Dec. 3, 2016.

 

REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Update at 4:40 p.m.: The death toll increased to 30 on Sunday afternoon as rescue workers pulled six more bodies from the converted warehouse in Oakland, California. Authorities said the number would likely keep increasing as rescue operations continued. “We are starting to get into areas of the building where we are finding more bodies,” Alameda County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly said. “We are using shovels and buckets and sifting through debris, so that’s what’s taking so long.”

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Original post: Rescue workers have pulled 24 bodies from a converted warehouse in Oakland, California, where a Friday night party turned into an inferno as flames quickly engulfed the precarious structure and trapped people inside. The death toll from the fire “will go up,” authorities said on Sunday morning a day after they publicly raised fears the number of fatalities could be as high as 40. The search for victims could take another two days as around 80 percent of the building is still to be searched, officials said.

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The cause of the fire at the building known as the “Ghost Ship” remains unknown but by all accounts the converted warehouse was nothing short of a death trap. City building inspectors were already investigating the building amid reports of illegal activity. An inspector even knocked on the door on Nov. 17, but no one answered.

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It seems a husband-and-wife team ran the artists’ collective that also doubled as a work and living space and they may have even lived there with their three children. They were not at the building when the fire broke out. The couple collected between $300 and $600 in rent for space in a building that had few lights and water and electricity that were stolen from neighbors and often didn’t work. In addition to collecting rent money, they also organized parties and concerts in the space.

Former residents describe a structure that sounds like quite possibly one of the worst places you could find yourself in when a fire breaks out. “It was a tinderbox,” a 30-year-old who went to several parties at the space tells the Los Angeles Times.

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A rickety makeshift staircase led to the second floor and there was so much stuff around that it was a challenge just to find your way, particularly for those who didn’t know the place well. “If you were not familiar with the building and the way that it was, if you were going there for a party, you wouldn’t be aware of the maze that you have to go through to get out,” a former friend of the couple who ran the warehouse said.

In a Facebook post that has been widely criticized, Derick Ion, who the East Bay Times identifies as Derick Alemany, the male partner in the couple that ran the converted warehouse, wrote: “Everything I worked so hard for is gone. Blessed that my children and Micah were at a hotel safe and sound. … it’s as if I have awoken from a dream filled with opulence and hope … to be standing now in poverty of self-worth.”

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The daughter of the owner of the warehouse tells the Los Angeles Times the building was meant to be studio space for an art collective and not a residence. She said she had heard complaints and brought up the issue to the renters but they always denied the warehouse was used as a dwelling. “They confirmed multiple times,” Eva Ng said. “They said sometimes some people worked through the night, but that is all.” One former resident who spent four or five months at the space said that as soon as she moved in she was ordered to tell any visitors that it was a workspace for artists.

Considering all the red flags it’s difficult to understand how no one did anything about the space sooner, notes the East Bay Times in an editorial:

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Oakland City Councilman Noel Gallo had received numerous complaints about parties at the building and illegal dumping on the property. What happened to those complaints?

Inspectors last month had supposedly launched an investigation of garbage piling up on the adjoining lot. That turned into a probe of an illegal interior building structure.

When inspectors returned on Nov. 17, they couldn’t get inside. That was 15 days before the fire broke out. What happened since then? Did the inspectors return? Gallo says they apparently didn’t try.

And what of those who walked into this death trap on Friday night? Many were young, in their 20s and 30s. Did they not sense danger in this makeshift party venue?

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