Death toll rises to 36 from California
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[December 06, 2016]
By Curtis Skinner and Peter Henderson
OAKLAND, Calif. (Reuters) - The death toll
rose to 36 on Monday from a blaze that engulfed a converted warehouse
during a dance party in Oakland, California, the greatest loss of life
from a U.S. fire in over a decade, as searchers sifted charred ruins
being treated as a crime scene.
Authorities said they were certain to find more bodies in the gutted
building and were still trying to account for about 50 people reported
missing by loved ones, while ruling out any drastic climb in the tally
"If you have a best friend out there, please hug your best friend,"
Franchesca Dickerson, a 21-year old hairdresser, told a candlelight
vigil, as she held a collage of images of a friend who died in the
"I'd give 50,000 years to hug mine," added Dickerson, who was to have
joined her childhood friend, 19-year old Michalea Gregory, at the party,
but changed plans because of work.
The cause of the fire, which erupted late on Friday in a sprawling
two-story building leased to an artists' collective, has yet to be
Officials have said arson was not immediately suspected. But charges
ranging from involuntary manslaughter to murder could feature in a
potential criminal case, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley
told a news conference.
Possible safety violations were expected to be one aspect of the
investigation, with city officials having said the site was already
under investigation for reports of illegal construction.
Investigators from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and
Explosives identified an "area of interest" on the ground floor that was
still out of reach, said Sergeant Ray Kelly, a spokesman for the Alameda
County Sheriff's Office.
He described the spot as being at the rear of the warehouse, where
makeshift studios and cubicles were clustered.
O'Malley said fire investigators and a task force from her office were
working with recovery teams inside the wreckage to preserve any
potential criminal evidence as they seek signs of victims and clues to
the origin of the blaze.
Debris was being removed "bucket by bucket," said Deputy Fire Chief
Darren White, but a large construction crane at the scene required
nearby electricity lines to be shut down for several hours, as a
The nature of the fire has raised questions about possible building code
violations. City officials have said the warehouse, known as the Ghost
Ship, was already under scrutiny, with an inspector having visited on
Municipal authorities also cited reports of people living in the
structure, although it was barred to residential use. Some of those who
entered the warehouse called it a potential fire trap.
The first floor, housing an artist cooperative, the Satya Yuga
Collective, was a warren of partitioned studio spaces and rooms crammed
with furniture, musical instruments and rugs, according to survivors,
city officials and photographs posted on social media before the fire.
Two recreational vehicles believed to have been used as living quarters
and work space were found parked on the ground floor inside, Kelly said.
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Firefighters work inside the burned warehouse following the fatal
fire in the Fruitvale district of Oakland, California, U.S. December
5, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
The dance party was held on the second floor, which partially
collapsed when the roof gave way. Survivors said flames spread
quickly and billowing thick, black smoke blinded and choked those
struggling to flee.
The 10,000-square-foot (929-sq-m) building lacked sprinklers or
smoke detectors, and wooden pallets partially formed a makeshift
stairway between first and second floors, officials said. It had
just two exterior doorways.
The recovery of three more bodies took the confirmed death count to
36, making the blaze the deadliest in the United States since 100
people perished in a 2003 nightclub fire in West Warwick, Rhode
"We absolutely believe that the number of fire fatalities will
increase," Oakland Fire Battalion Chief Melinda Drayton told
reporters. But Sheriff Gregory Ahern later said he was "not
anticipating any more huge numbers" of victims.
By Monday afternoon, 33 of the dead had been identified and
authorities were notifying families, said Ahern, adding that three
victims were from Finland, South Korea and Guatemala.
Most victims had been in their 20s and 30s, but some were younger,
officials said. The site was known as a "safeplace" haven for young
members of the city's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender
community, Kelly said.
With many bodies burned beyond recognition, families were asked to
preserve items that might contain DNA to help identification. Kelly
said some people died of smoke inhalation.
Officials were unsure of the numbers present when the fire erupted.
One survivor has estimated them at 60 to 70.
The warehouse was one of many converted lofts on the east end of San
Francisco Bay in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood, a mostly Latino
district where rents are typically lower than elsewhere.
(Additional reporting by Laila Kearney in New York, Timothy
McLaughlin in Chicago, Deborah Todd in Oakland and Sharon Bernstein
in Sacramento, Calif.; Writing by Daniel Wallis and Steve Gorman;
Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Peter Cooney)
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