By Evan Sernoffsky and Kevin Fagan
The death toll from a fire that tore through an electronic music show in Oakland soared to 33 on Sunday, and criminal investigators are looking into how a warehouse that allegedly had been converted into an artistic and performance space without permits could have become such a death trap.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley had "activated a criminal investigation team" in response to the blaze, which happened in a building that officials said had city permits only for use as a warehouse. Teresa Drenick, a spokeswoman for the district attorney, said an arson task force was also looking into the fire.
Numerous witnesses have said people were living in the structure at 31st Avenue and International Boulevard, known as the Ghost Ship. They described a tangled and makeshift interior that turned exit routes into a deadly, confusing maze as the flames spread Friday night.
Battalion Chief Melinda Drayton of the Oakland Fire Department said workers using excavators and other heavy equipment Saturday night had combed through 35 to 40 percent of the building, and were finding bodies spread throughout the debris. She described an arduous -- and emotionally difficult -- process.
"Literally bucket by bucket, in a thoughtful, mindful and compassionate way," she said. "It was quiet. It was heartbreaking."
Officials said it would be days before the entire disaster scene could be searched and that they expected the number of dead to rise further. The confirmed death toll exceeds that of the Oakland Hills firestorm in 1991, which killed 25 people.
Alameda County Sheriff's Sgt. Ray Kelly said people who think they might have a lost a loved one to the fire should start preserving DNA samples, such as hair from brushes, to help with identification because of the extent of damage to the remains. "It's a terrible thing to say that, but that's what we have to do here," he said.
On Sunday night, the county coroner's office released the names of seven dead adults, and San Francisco school officials said an eighth known victim was a 17-year-old boy who attended the Ruth Asawa School for the Arts.
Kelly said the dead included the son of a deputy for the Alameda County Sheriff's Office -- the agency in charge of recovering and examining bodies recovered from the tragic scene.
The deputy's son and the others who died were among dozens of people who attended the music show late Friday at the two-story Ghost Ship. The cause of the fire is not yet known.
The building was a warren of subdivided spaces, and the stairway from the first to second levels was a twisting structure of nailed-together wooden pallets and other bits of wood. Survivors described the narrow stairway as a bottleneck for those trying to escape the fire that broke out shortly before 11:30 p.m. Friday.
Fire officials said they had arrived at the blaze within three minutes of learning of it. But as more details of the fire spilled out, it became clear that most of the partygoers had mere moments to flee for their lives.
Chris Nechodom was on the first floor and wondered at first if the smoke that spread through the Ghost Ship was part of the show. All too quickly, it became apparent it wasn't.
"I noticed the smoke and thought, 'Is that a fog machine?' Then people were running frantic," said Nechodom, 30. "I looked to the back. and it was just from wall to wall, the ceiling was on fire.
"It was just kind of spreading to the front slowly. And it was kind of like a swooping down, so the back was on fire."
He added, "I turned around and saw a bunch of people coughing, not sure which way to go. We all start shuffling to the front -- we're getting low. We get to the front and there's a few people yelling and screaming, so I start helping, yelling and screaming like, 'This is where the front entrance is! Follow our boys -- come here, come here!'"
All day long, the worried and the curious flocked to the hulking ruins of the Ghost Ship and several nearby impromptu memorials of flowers and candles to share memories, hopes and anguish. Some were certain their friends or loved ones never made it out of the show. Some stared at the ruins or flowers and cried.
City inspectors said they had opened an investigation Nov. 13 into allegedly illegal conversions at the building, and had tried to walk through the structure on Nov. 17 but were unable to. City officials have not explained what inspectors did, if anything, after Nov. 17 and have not specified why they could not check the building that day.
Josh Howes, whose former fiancee, Donna Kellogg, died in the fire, said he knew the Ghost Ship building well, being an artist himself. He was not surprised that the fire had spread so quickly and completely. The artists who lived and worked there had come up with a hodgepodge of creations from mostly scavenged objects, he said, but fire hazards were everywhere.
"That place was 100 percent trash -- beautiful, amazing trash," Howes said. "That place was the most perfect beautiful bonfire."
The twisting staircase to the second level "was literally made out of kindling," Howes said.
Several recreational vehicles were parked on the ground level, and most of the complex was an obstacle course of handcrafted bedrooms, studio caves, lounging areas and art displays, with propane tanks hanging here and there and precarious light fixtures beaming as artwork. Avant-garde artists from all over the Bay Area considered it a haven for low-income creativity in the mold of other makeshift warehouse complexes, but many added that the potential danger was never a big mystery.
Ibrahim Price walked over to the ruins from his home three blocks away and said he might have been at Friday's show if he hadn't been thrown out of a party at the Ghost Ship and punched by its bouncer a month ago in a dispute over someone's girlfriend.
"I swore I'd never come back here to this place," said Price, 23. "A month later, look what happened. This whole thing is really unnerving. I'm just grateful for life. I could easily have been there."
Sgt. Kelly said Sunday that he was sure more bodies would turn up as additional areas of the collapsed structure are cleared of huge chunks of concrete, melted metal and charred wood.
It's a wrenching process, he said. Officials must talk with each family of the dead, and "we cried with them," Kelly said.
As far as pinning down the cause of the blaze, Battalion Chief Drayton said, "We don't believe we've even gotten close to the origin of the fire."
The fire began during a performance by the electronic music troupe Golden Donna 100% Silk. Joel Shanahan, the musician from Madison, Wis., who performs as Golden Donna, the party's headline act, was confirmed to be safe by associates who posted the news on social media. Local musicians also performed on the bill, and some of them were among those unaccounted for.
Shanahan declined requests for comment, but the production company for his tour, a Los Angeles outfit called 100% Silk that is owned by Amanda and Britt Brown, posted this notice on Facebook: "What happened in Oakland is an unbelievable tragedy, a nightmare scenario. Britt and I are beside ourselves, utterly devastated. We are a very tight community of artists and we are all praying, sending love and condolences to everyone involved and their families."
(c)2016 the San Francisco Chronicle