OAKLAND, Calif. (Reuters) - Authorities in Oakland, California, said on Tuesday they had identified all but one of the 36 victims whose bodies were pulled from the debris of a fire that ripped through a dance party at a warehouse at the weekend.
Emergency workers have searched and cleared at least 90 percent of the charred building, officials told a news conference. Searchers were still sifting through the rest of the structure on Tuesday evening in a non-stop operation.
“This has been a heavy labour operation plus a heavy mental operation,” Oakland Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed said.
A local state of emergency has been proclaimed, she said, potentially allowing for state and federal funds to help cover the costs of the inferno, the cause of which has yet to be determined. Reed said the City Council was set to ratify the proclamation later this week.
The blaze erupted late on Friday in a sprawling two-story building known as the Ghost Ship that was leased to an artists’ collective.
The coroner’s office has completed autopsies on half the 36 victims, said Alameda County Sheriff’s Office spokesman J.D. Nelson. He said 35 had been identified, and the families of 30 notified.
Nelson said smoke inhalation, typical for a major fire of this kind, was found to be the cause of death in all those examined.
Survivors said flames spread quickly and billowing thick, black smoke blinded and choked those struggling to flee. One victim’s body was positioned in a way to shield another person, who also died, Nelson said.
Officials have said arson was not immediately suspected. However, charges ranging from involuntary manslaughter to murder could be brought, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O‘Malley told reporters on Monday.
The dance party was held on the second floor, which partially collapsed. The 10,000-square-foot (900-square-metre) building lacked sprinklers and smoke detectors, and wooden pallets partially formed a makeshift stairway between its first and second floors, officials said on Monday. It had just two exterior doors.
The manager of the warehouse, Derrick Almena, broke down on Tuesday during an interview with NBC’s “Today” programme and declined to answer questions about the condition of the building before the fire. He said he was sorry.
“I’d rather get on the floor and be trampled by the parents,” Almena said. “I’d rather let them tear at my flesh than answer these ridiculous questions.”
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaff told an evening news conference that three complaints had been made against the warehouse between 2005 and 2014, according to the city’s planning and building department.
Schaff said two complaints were made in 2014, one alleging construction of housing without permits and another claiming construction materials were blocking the sidewalk. The third, in 2005, alleged that a vacant lot next to the warehouse was being used as a parking lot and homeless encampment, Schaff said.
Schaff said the city was still compiling data and reports about the warehouse from other city agencies, including the police and fire departments.
Among the dead was Chelsea Dolan, 33, a San Francisco-based musician who, according to her Facebook page, was scheduled to perform as a DJ at the warehouse on Friday night.
“She was someone so talented, she could have been a diva if she wanted to, but she never was,” Dolan’s friend, Gehno Sanchez Aviance, said on Sunday.
Thousands gathered for a candlelight vigil in Oakland on Monday night to mourn the dead.
Additional reporting by Kristina Cooke and Dan Levine in San Francisco and Gina Cherelus and David Ingram in New York, and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Alistair Bell, Jonathan Oatis and Paul Tait