OAKLAND — The death toll rose to 36 Monday and could still climb after a massive weekend fire roared through this city's "Ghost Ship," a warehouse-turned-artist collective and popular party space.
Mayor Libby Schaaf said Alameda County District Attorney Nancy E. O’Malley had activated a criminal investigation team and that investigators were on the scene of the fire.
Photos | Oakland fatal fire
Schaaf said officials had delivered “the unacceptable and horrific news of losing a loved one” to seven families, and that the city would be releasing the names of the deceased “promptly.”
“It is with so much grief and so much compassion that we as your city family share with you this horrific news," she said.
The city said 11 victims have been identified, but have released names of eight. One was a 17-year-old whose name was not released, but city officials identified the others as:
- Cash Askew, 22, of Oakland
- David Clines, 35, of Oakland
- Nick Gomez-Hall, 25, of Coronado, Calif.
- Sara Hoda, 30, of Walnut Creek, Calif.
- Travis Hough, 35, of Oakland
- Donna Kellogg, 32, of Oakland
- Brandon Chase Wittenauer, 32, of Hayward, Calif.
County Sheriff's Office spokesman Ray Kelly said about 35-40 percent of the building had been searched since Friday night's blaze, so a final death toll could be days away.
"The number will go up," Kelly said Sunday. "Firefighters are tired, exhausted. This is very emotional."
He said the victims include "minors," possibly as young as 17 years old. He added that some of the victims hailed from Europe and Asia.
Kelly also said one of the victims, whom he didn't identify, was the son of a county sheriff's deputy.
The fire broke out during an electronic music party at the warehouse, part of which had been converted to makeshift art studios and living areas. The party apparently took place in a large open space on the second floor accessible by a single wooden staircase.
Melinda Drayton, Oakland Fire Department battalion chief, said firefighters breached a wall overnight and were attempting to systematically and safely remove debris "bucket by bucket" from the battered building. She said firefighters had not yet reached the location where the fire began, and investigators were far from determining the cause of the blaze.
"This will be a long and arduous process," she said. "We want to make sure we are respecting the victims and their families and ensuring our firefighters' safety."
The building sits in Fruitvale, a neighborhood with a large Latino population a few miles southeast of downtown. Yellow police tape a block from the building kept the public away. The charred remains of the top of the building were visible, and work crews could be seen dragging out debris.
Chris Nechodom, 30, a photographer and filmmaker from Richmond, Calif., was visiting a friend on the first floor of the warehouse when the fire started. He told USA TODAY he thought at first it might be coming from a fog machine at the party above. But soon he was shouting so people fleeing the fire could follow his voice toward the exit.
Finally, he had inhaled so much smoke he had to go outside.
"I'm just praying and thanking the higher power that I made it out," he said.
Several therapy dogs and their handlers were in the area Sunday to comfort families and first responders. Constance Barich, 61, visited with Rosie, a 2-year-old English Labrador. Barich, an artist in the neighborhood for 30 years, said she has lived in some of the warehouses.
"There are hundreds and hundreds of artists in this neighborhood," she told USA TODAY. "If it looks like someone is living there, they are."
Phillip Rhodes and his wife Pam, members of the rapid response team for Phil Graham Ministries, drove from Tracy, Calif.
"We are here to provide emotional and spiritual care to any and all," Phillip Rhodes said.
The electronic-music party featured Golden Donna, the stage name for Wisconsin musician Joel Shanahan. Shanahan told the Madison, Wis., alternative weekly Isthmus that he was alive but "far from OK" after the tragedy.
Shanahan said he watched helplessly from across the street as the building burned. He said he decided to cut short his West Coast tour.
“I’ll be home soon,” he told the weekly. “My heart is just broken.”
Our hearts go out to the families and friends of those lost in the tragic fire. pic.twitter.com/JIG5IicpiO— Oakland Police Dept. (@oaklandpoliceca) December 4, 2016
The Oakland Fire Department brought in tractors, bulldozers, trucks and a crane to breach the labyrinth of charred wood and twisted wires. The building has partially collapsed, making it perilous for emergency responders.
Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed said it took about five hours to douse the blaze. The building, which did not appear to have sprinklers, also did not have clear exit path, she said.
City officials have confirmed that building authorities had opened an investigation just last month into complaints about the safety of the structure. That inquiry was ongoing when the fire struck.
Planning and Building Director Darin Ranelletti said the building's owners had no permits to hold parties or create living spaces in the building. He said a department inspector had attempted to enter the building last month while responding to a complaint but was unable to gain access.
Fernando Valenzuela, who graduated from a nearby high school and now has an insurance business in the neighborhood, said the building always scared him. He said he's frustrated the city ignores such places that are not up to code.
"This is a bunch of kids in a flat. Kids don't know — they think they are immortal," he said.
Photos | Memorials rise after warehouse fire
Bacon reported from McLean, Va. Contributing: Elizabeth Weise, Greg Toppo, USA TODAY, and the Associated Press.