The death toll in a fire that tore through an Oakland, Calif., warehouse during a dance-music party is up to 33, officials confirmed at a Sunday afternoon (Dec. 4) press conference.
Sixty percent of the building has yet to be searched, including two mobile homes on the premises that may have had people inside. “I don’t know how many people are left in there. We’re expecting the worst and hoping for the best,” Alameda County Sheriff Ray Kelly said.
In his update, Kelly said seven families have officially been notified so far, and names of the victims will be announced Sunday on the city’s website.
He clarified that though they have found 33 victims, 26 of them have not been officially identified. Families have been initially notified based on wallets and other personal possessions being found on or near bodies. Kelly added that Oakland officials have personally met with every family awaiting news on their loved ones.
At least one minor has been found, a 17-year-old, but Kelly says he anticipates “a couple of minors” being victims of the fire. There are international victims, from Europe and Asia, and the city is working with consulates to notify families.
An Oakland police department deputy lost his own son in the fire.
“The scope of this tragedy is tremendous,” Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf said.
“I have yet to meet any type of person [locally] that this has not affected, be it the first responder community, members of the media, or people in city government,” Kelly said post press conference.
A criminal investigation has been activated as a precaution, though no further details have been revealed. The district attorney’s office is on-site, cooperating with other agencies.
“Only the DA can say whether a criminal investigation has been launched,” Schaaf said.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is on-site assisting, offering lab services from experts and scientists.
“We don’t believe we’ve gotten close to the point of origin of the fire,” Fire Chief Melinda Drayton said earlier in the day.
Kelly told reporters that part of the delay in releasing names, aside from time to notify family, is that some victims are transgendered. Officials are working with the families and transgender organizations to ensure they properly announce victim’s names and correct gender. Some bodies have been easy to ID, while others will likely require DNA tests and dental records, which could take weeks.
The converted warehouse was known as the “Ghost Ship” and has been described as a maze-like warren of artist studios. According to a statement, on Nov. 13 the city received complaints of blight and unpermitted interior construction at the building, and four days later a building inspector visited the property and verified the complaint but could not gain access to the building to confirm it. The investigation is ongoing.
Drayton called the fire the most deadly in her 19-year career, adding that the mood among her team is somber.
“This is the most deadly fire in Oakland’s fire history that I’m aware of, I’ve been in for 19 years and consider myself a veteran,” she says. “It is tragic to watch so many people perish from a fire fatality in front of your eyes and have to be stoic in your job.”
Drayton says the excavation is being carried out “literally bucket by bucket in a methodical, thoughtful, mindful, and compassionate way.” She anticipates at least a few more days using the same approach. “This will be a long and arduous process,” Drayton says.