Warehouse fire death toll climbs to 36, and expected to increase

Published 10:59 am Monday, December 5, 2016

OAKLAND, Calif.  — The death toll in the Oakland warehouse fire has grown to 36 and authorities say they expect the number to rise when they resume work later Monday following a temporary work stoppage. A wall is leaning inward, posing a safety hazard to those who have been searching the building which erupted in fire Friday night.

Eleven of the victims have been positively identified, but the names have yet to be publicly released.

Authorities also believe they’ve located the section of the building where the fire started, but the cause remains unknown.

The fire erupted during a dance party late Friday night.

Survivors and teary-eyed friends of those who perished viewed the charred building from a distance, have placed flowers on several small memorials and embraced each other to mourn their losses.

Bouquets of sunflowers, single white roses, lilies and carnations were stuck in chain-link fences, votive candles burned on sidewalks and post-it notes paid tribute to the missing and the dead in the most lethal building fire in the U.S. in more than a decade.

Kai Thomas and a group of red-eyed classmates from an arts high school in San Francisco pressed against police tape Sunday near the street corner where the “Ghost Ship,” a warehouse converted to artist studios and illegal living spaces, rapidly went up in flames late Friday, taking the life of a friend.

Three of the boys had been in the cramped and dark building, Thomas said, but one got separated from them 30 seconds before someone yelled, “Fire.”

“It was just really smoky and hard to see,” said Thomas, a high school junior who wasn’t there, but recounted what he had been told by two others who didn’t want to speak. “They jumped off the second-floor balcony and ran out.”

The boys waited for their 17-year-old friend for more than three hours, but he never emerged.

They wouldn’t give his name, but the victims included a 17-year-old, as well as people from Europe and Asia and some over 30, said Alameda County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ray Kelly said. Officials had identified eight of the dead — at least seven of them using fingerprints, but told family members of the missing that they may need to use DNA for more difficult identifications.

Lists of the missing circulated and many of those who had been unable to reach friends in the past two days had given up hope when authorities said people either escaped without injury or died inside.

Jesse James Alexander, a DJ, who wasn’t at the party, showed up at the scene of the fire Sunday to remember three friends who were killed, though he didn’t want to give their names.

Others were still holding out hope. Yuri Kundin said outside a sheriff’s office where friends and family gathered for word of their loved ones that he was hoping for good news about his friends, Alex Ghassan and Hanna Henriikka Ruax, who was from Finland.

One of the many post-it notes left on a sidewalk around the corner from the remains of the warehouse said, “Praying for you. … Hope you’re still here.”

Firefighters had searched less than half the building and expected more casualties as they worked around the clock to remove debris bucket by bucket.

The district attorney’s sent a team to search for signs of a crime in the warehouse that was already under investigation by the city for possible code violations. The space was only permitted as a warehouse and neighbors had complained of trash piling up and people were illegally living there.

Authorities would not answer questions about the couple that operated the Satya Yuga collective, who were identified as Derick Ion Almena and Micah Allison and were believed to have been out of the building at the time of the blaze.