Warehouse fire: 33 bodies found; 70% of building still to be searched

Story highlights

About 35% of the warehouse has been searched, authorities said Sunday

Names of some victims could be released Sunday

Oakland, California CNN —  

In the wake of the tragedy, a fence and sidewalk near the site became a memorial, with loved ones and others leaving flowers, candles, photographs and messages.

The death toll is expected to rise as crews search the wreckage of the two-story building, which burst into flames late Friday night. Roughly 30% of the building had been searched as of Sunday afternoon, Alameda County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ray Kelly said in a news conference Sunday.

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It could take weeks to identify victims through DNA and dental records, he said. Officials have asked victims’ families to preserve potential DNA samples from such items as their loved ones’ hairbrushes and toothbrushes to assist in identifications. He added that officials were also working with the transgender community to identify some of the victims.

The City of Oakland identified the first eight victims Sunday night. One is a 17-year-old minor whose name will not be released, the city said. The rest have been identified as Cash Askew, 22, David Clines, 35, Donna Kellogg, 32, Travis Hough, 35, all of Oakland; Nick Gomez-Hall, 25, of Coronado, California; Sara Hoda, 30, of Walnut Creek, California; and Brandon Chase Wittenauer, 32, of Hayward, California.

“The scope of this tragedy is tremendous,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said Sunday. A criminal investigation team is on the scene as a preliminary measure, she added.

The recovery search would be long and arduous as firefighters work to remove debris “literally bucket by bucket in a methodical, thoughtful, mindful and compassionate way,” Oakland battalion Fire Chief Melinda Drayton said.

“We had firefighters with basically coveralls and buckets and shovels taking bits of debris out into the vacant lot to be loaded into dump trucks and removed to an off-site location,” she said.

Drayton, a 19-year veteran, called it one of the deadliest fires in the city’s history, including a 1991 fire in Oakland Hills that killed 25 people.

Even after firefighters put out the blaze Saturday, the building was deemed too unsafe for emergency responders to enter. Officials say the roof collapsed onto the second floor and then parts of that collapsed on to the first floor.

“One is falling debris,” James McMullen told CNN Sunday. “One is building collapse. One is the fact that you don’t want to disturb evidence that’s critical for the fire investigation. … So the key thing is, you’ve got to move slowly and you’ve got to preserve the scene at the same time so that the fire investigators can in fact determine the area of origin and subsequently the point of origin (of the fire), and then determine the cause.”

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‘You could feel the heat of the flames’

Freelance journalist Sam Lefebvre said many people were just arriving at the warehouse when the fire started, because the dance party was supposed to go very late. The warehouse is a “sort of live/work art space with a lot of old decorations and furniture,” Lefebvre told CNN. An electronic music DJ known as Golden Donna was scheduled to perform.

By the time John Evanofski arrived at 31st Avenue, giant flames lit up the night sky amid the billows of black smoke.

“You could feel the heat of the flames,” he told CNN. “Most of us were crying or unable to react. It was so hot and so terrible knowing that so many of us were still inside.”

Concerned family and friends used social media to find loved ones and offer support.

A Facebook page created for the event became a forum for friends and family of the victims, who posted frantic messages seeking information about loved ones. Those who survived shared their names to show they were safe.

Before the fire, an undated photo from Google Earth shows the building at 1305 31st Ave. in Oakland.

‘I had to let him go’

For filmmaker and photographer Bob Mulé, the warehouse was both his home and his community. The 27-year-old stopped to listen to some music Friday night before heading downstairs to work on a painting. He smelled smoke from his studio.

The 27-year-old Mulé said more than 20 people living in the warehouse paid rent and were all involved in the creation of the space.

On Friday night, Mule stopped upstairs to listen to some music he described as a “very tame setting.” Afterward, he headed downstairs to work on a painting. From his studio, he smelled smoke.

As Mulé rushed to save his camera and laptop, he spotted a heavy-set artist who called out for help.

“I was pulling him out,” said Mulé, who suffered burns from the fire. “The flames were too much. There was too much smoke and … I had to let him go.”

A haven for artists

The interior of The Ghost Ship, the warehouse that caught fire on Friday, December 2.

To the artists who lived and worked there, the Ghost Ship was a coveted haven in the Bay Area’s gentrifying landscape of skyrocketing rents and disappearing artist spaces. Residents estimate 20 to 25 artists lived there.

Photos posted online show an interior containing drums, keyboards, guitars, clocks, ornate beds, plush sofas, mirrored dressers, tables, benches and artifacts. Exotic lamps hung from the ceiling, and paintings adorned the walls.

The interior of "The Ghost Ship"

Darin Ranelletti, Oakland’s interim director of planning and building, said the city approved permits for the building to be used only as a warehouse, not for residences. City officials also had not signed off on a special permit for the event, Ranelletti said.

Last month the warehouse property owners had received notification of code violations for hazardous trash and debris, property records show. Officials had not yet completed an investigation into a November complaint for an illegal interior building structure..

CNN has reached out to the property owners for comment. Johnna Watson, Oakland police spokeswoman, said the building is not deemed a crime scene but it is still early in the investigation.

Coping with a nightmare

More than 40 people gathered Saturday at Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland for a vigil. Organizers asked attendees to light a candle at the end of the service, saying flames caused pain and destruction “but tonight we light the flame for good and for peace.”

Now, as loved ones await answers in the coming days, Mulé must wrestle with the reality of losing a friend he couldn’t save and the likelihood that the official deatTheh toll may climb.

“I tried to save my friend but I had to leave him,” Mulé said.

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CNN’s Dan Simon reported from Oakland, and Chandrika Narayan wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Stephanie Elam, Max Blau, Sara Weisfeldt and Carma Hassan contributed to this report.