Dozens of people were still missing and unaccounted for after a fire broke out during at a warehouse party in Oakland on Friday night. The official death toll has now risen to 24, according to The New York Times, and officials say that the search of the rubble may take days. “We have located 24 deceased victims of this fire,” Sgt. Ray Kelly of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office said at a news conference. “We anticipate that the number of victims will rise. We will be here for days and days to come.”
The Fruitvale neighborhood building, which had a permit to function as a warehouse but not as a residence or a party space, was named the Ghost Ship by the Satya Yuga Art Collective that lived and worked there. Described by Oakland officials as a “labyrinth of artist studios,” the warehouse had been under investigation for illegal residence, dance parties, and blight several months prior to the blaze, which broke out at an electronic music show featuring several artists associated with the Los Angeles-based label 100% Silk. According to witnesses, the interior of the cramped space was covered in tapestries, instruments, and art, and a makeshift staircase between the first and second floors was fashioned out of wooden pallets and plywood.
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Melinda Drayton, battalion chief for the Oakland Fire Department, said that rescue workers spent all night combing through the wreckage, removing debris “literally bucket by bucket.” They were only able to access about 20% of the building. “It’s very bad wreckage, twisted debris. It’s like a maze: wires, beams, wood,” Kelly added. “It’s all fallen on top of each other. There are places and crevices we can’t get in to. We know that there are bodies in there that we cannot get to, that have been seen but have not been recovered.” Excavators and a crane are being brought in to assist in the recovery effort.
UPDATE: AP now reports that the death toll has risen to 33. Meanwhile 46-year-old Derick Ion Almena has become a central figure in the aftermath of the blaze. The eccentric Satya Yuga organizer and his wife, Micah Allison, lived at the Ghost Ship with their three young children — though they were not there Friday night and did not own the building — and were reportedly warned many times about safety hazards at the warehouse. Almena has garnered outrage for his cavalier attitude about safety and for this particularly tone-deaf Facebook message he posted after the fire:
“Confirmed. Everything I worked so hard for is gone. Blessed that my children and Micah were at a hotel safe and sound… it’s as if I have awoken from a dream filled with opulence and hope… to be standing now in poverty of self worth.”
He has not been charged with a crime.
UPDATE 2: The Associated Press reports that the death toll has increased to 36 and is expected to rise further, according to Oakland city officials.