Speaking at a late afternoon press conference near the site of Friday’s Oakland Ghost Ship fire, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf announced that the death toll has officially reached 33, and that city officials have positively identified seven of the victims. Their names will be released via the city’s website and social media feeds later on Sunday.
“At this time we have delivered the unacceptable and horrific news of losing a loved one to seven of our families. We will be releasing the names of those decedents with the exception of the juveniles,” she said.
Schaaf said that on Sunday, the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office activated a criminal investigations team to preserve evidence relating to the fire. “They are on site and working in concert with other law enforcement officers,” Schaaf said.
The mayor said that the city will have three priorities: the “compassionate and humane” removal of the victims, supporting their families and loved ones, and “doing everything that we can to preserve evidence and document the recovery in a manner that allows us to fully and professionally investigate this incident, so we can get to the bottom of this.”
In response to a KQED reporter’s question about the balance between the demand for artists’ spaces and making sure those spaces are safe, Schaaf said “creating safe vibrant spaces for Oakland’s artist community is a priority for the city and for me as a mayor. This is ironic. We scheduled this last week before this tragedy. We are going forward with an announcement on Tuesday around efforts to preserve and protect artists’ spaces in Oakland. It is an incredible asset to our community, one that we cherish, one that has been affected by this horrible tragedy.”
Speaking at the press conference, Sgt. Ray Kelly of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office said that firefighters have so far worked their way through about 35 percent of the building. “We have now started to recover victims who are minors. We do have some children aged 17 years old, possibly younger. It is very unfortunate that we have to tell you that we have 17-year-old victims,” said Kelly.
“This tragedy has hit very close to home for our agency. One of our deputies lost his son in this fire,” he said. “Our department is hurting from that.”
On Saturday, the UC Berkeley student newspaper the Daily Californian reported that two current students and two alumni are believed to be among the missing. (Oakland North is a project of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.) Shortly before Sunday’s press conference, UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks confirmed in a campus-wide message that “members of the Berkeley campus community are among those who remain missing in the wake of the devastating fire that consumed an event space in Oakland late Friday night,” although he did not specify names or the number of students.
“We are working diligently with fire and police officials to get updated information, but for now our hearts, condolences, and prayers go out to the families and friends of the deceased, as well as those who must deal with unbearable uncertainty as they wait to hear about all who remain unaccounted for,” he wrote, urging students to take advantage of counseling through campus health services.
Earlier on Sunday, Captain Melanie Ditzenberger of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Coroner’s Bureau had asked the loved ones of missing people to preserve sources of their DNA by collecting hairbrushes, combs or toothbrushes and placing them in a brown paper bag. She asked that people store these items until the coroner’s bureau requests them.
Throughout the day, authorities continued to search the site, as small crowds gathered outside to leave flowers and other memorial items. Debbie Wanlin from the Valley Humane Society was one of three volunteers who had brought therapy dogs to the scene. “We wish we were able to provide comfort to more people,” she said.
During the afternoon, firefighters began using lumber to build a ramp, which Oakland Police Department spokesperson Officer Johnna Watson said would be used to help bring equipment inside the structure to clear debris and process the scene. She said firefighters were also building supports to shore up the interior of the building so it is safe for police officers and firefighters to go inside; as they remove debris, they are worried that they are compromising the structure of the building.
Watson was not able to give any details on what kind of evidence a potential criminal investigation might seek, but said that the fire department has so far encountered no reason to suspect arson.
Speaking after the press conference, Kelly confirmed that on Saturday law enforcement officials had used drones for two different purposes: one was using thermal imaging to look for the fire’s hotspots or for survivors inside the building. They did not find any survivors, he said.
They also used the drones to take aerial photographs of the building before they began to remove debris, to preserve evidence in case of a criminal investigation.
Schaaf concluded her address on Sunday by expressing gratitude for the search and recovery workers, saying that they “give public service a whole new meaning,” and that they have “under the hardest of circumstances have hand by hand, bucket by bucket removed debris [and] preserved it.”