As the official death toll in the Oakland Ghost Ship warehouse fire rose to 30 on Sunday afternoon, crowds gathered outside to set up small memorials and watch as authorities continued their search process inside the building.
Several workers in yellow vests and hard hats could be seen carrying shovels around the building’s perimeter, and authorities had blocked off a roughly two-block area with yellow crime scene tape, stopping traffic in the area between International Boulevard, Fruitvale Avenue, Derby and 12th Streets.
Police officers stood along the cordon, where small clusters of people spoke to reporters or left flowers and candles along the barricades. One person had brought a cluster of three star-shaped balloons, and had used masking tape to write OAK <3 LAND.
The building’s exterior, once painted gray and purple and covered in paintings of faces and eyes, was now stained with soot, which had poured from every window. The steel skeleton was visible above the building, but the roof itself was gone.
A parking lot at a nearby Wendy’s had been turned into a staging area for emergency vehicles, including an American Red Cross truck, several police and county sheriff’s office SUVs, and fire department pickup trucks. Several bulldozers and a backhoe were also lined up outside the building, along with a set of blue sheriff’s office tents, which appeared to contain construction materials.
In the parking lot behind the warehouse, workers from Bigge Crane and Rigging Co. were sitting at a table near a parked crane truck and a pickup truck with rigging gear. They said they were there on standby in case crane support is needed, but that they have not yet done any work on the warehouse.
Shortly after noon, Capt. Melanie Ditzenberger of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Coroner’s Bureau confirmed that the death toll has risen to 30.
“They are working and pulling this building apart and dissecting it,” said Sgt. Ray Kelly, the public information officer for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, who joined her during an impromptu press briefing. “As we continue to get deeper into the building, we continue to find more victims.”
Previously, the most deadly fire in Oakland history was the Oakland Hills fire, which claimed 25 lives and injured 150 people on October 20, 1991.
During the press briefing, Ditzenberger asked the loved ones of missing people to preserve sources of their DNA by collecting hairbrushes, combs or toothbrushes. She asked that people store these items until the coroner’s bureau requests them.
The fire, which broke out during an electronic music performance late Friday night, consumed the building quickly, trapping many partygoers inside. Survivors have reported that many on the second story had trouble escaping because their only route out was a rickety makeshift ladder that resembled a wooden plank.
Photographer Christopher Nechodom, who escaped the fire shortly after it broke out, said he had been visiting the Oakland Ghost Ship for the first time and noticed how much of the interior was filled with DIY wooden structures, including mezzanines and artists’ nooks. “What you read is right—it’s a big concrete building filled with flammable material,” he said.
Nechodom said that when he and his friends first noticed smoke, it was very light—they thought it might be mist from a fog machine. “All of a sudden we started hearing loud screaming. I saw someone run by with a fire extinguisher. I grabbed my phone and keys off the table and was like, let’s calmly get out of here,” he said.
Soon after, he could see the fire creep along the rear wall on the first floor towards the ceiling. It then spread quickly across the ceiling. He had noticed several fire extinguishers in the building, and said one of his friends grabbed one, “but he couldn’t get it to work. He was frantic trying to pull the pin.”
His group moved towards the front exit, and he stayed just inside the doorway trying to usher people out. “We just kept yelling so that people would follow our voices to get to the front,” he said.
Once they got outside, he said, “you heard this kind of loud noise and then this big puff of black smoke came out the doors and windows. After that big bellow of smoke, only a few more people came out.” He started trying to contact 911, “but it was actually busy, because I think so many people were calling,” he said.
The San Francisco Chronicle has reported that the city was investigating the building for alleged construction permit and blight violations. The East Bay Times has reported on the city’s failed attempts to inspect the building, and others have expressed concerns about the dangerous conditions for people living in Oakland’s many artists’ warehouses.
“We have a housing crisis and it’s leading people to live in places like this,” said Nechodom. “This is complete negligence on all sides, from the owner not policing the lessee to the lessee not policing the people throwing the party.”
On a personal note, Nechodom added, once he’d returned home that night, he remembered that after his smoke detector had started beeping a few weeks back due to a low battery, he’d gotten annoyed and disconnected it.
“I’m about to go stop by Home Depot and get a 9-volt battery,” he said.