The death toll in the Oakland warehouse fire has grown to 36 and authorities say they expect the number to rise when they resume work later Monday following a temporary work stoppage. A wall is leaning inward, posing a safety hazard to those who have been searching the building which erupted in fire Friday night.
Eleven of the victims have been positively identified, but all the names have yet to be publicly released.
Authorities also believe they’ve located the section of the building where the fire started, but the cause remains unknown.
On Monday, President Obama issued a statement in response to the tragedy:
Today our prayers go out to the people of Oakland, California in the aftermath of this weekend’s deadly warehouse fire – one of the worst fires in the state’s history. While we still don’t know the full toll of this disaster, we do know that an American community has been devastated, and many people – including young men and women with their whole futures ahead of them – have tragically lost their lives. I want to thank the dedicated first responders who have been working tirelessly for days to contain the situation, recover victims, and treat the wounded.
My Administration is in close contact with our state and local partners on the ground to make sure that authorities have everything they need as they continue response operations and investigate the cause of the fire. Oakland is one of the most diverse and creative cities in our country, and as families and residents pull together in the wake of this awful tragedy, they will have the unwavering support of the American people.
The fire erupted during a dance party late Friday night. Since then, survivors and friends of those who perished have placed flowers on several small memorials.
Bouquets of sunflowers, single white roses, lilies and carnations were stuck in chain-link fences, votive candles burned on sidewalks and post-it notes paid tribute to the missing and the dead in the most lethal building fire in the U.S. in more than a decade.
Kai Thomas and a group of red-eyed classmates from an arts high school in San Francisco pressed against police tape Sunday near the street corner where the “Ghost Ship,” a warehouse converted to artist studios and illegal living spaces, rapidly went up in flames, taking the life of a friend.
Three of the boys had been in the cramped and dark building, Thomas said, but one got separated from them 30 seconds before someone yelled, “Fire.”
“It was just really smoky and hard to see,” said Thomas, a high school junior who wasn’t there, but recounted what he had been told by two others who didn’t want to speak. “They jumped off the second-floor balcony and ran out.”
The boys waited for their 17-year-old friend for more than three hours, but he never emerged.
Lists of the missing circulated and many of those who had been unable to reach friends in the past two days had given up hope when authorities said people either escaped without injury or died inside.
One of the many post-it notes left on a sidewalk around the corner from the remains of the warehouse said, “Praying for you. … Hope you’re still here.”
Firefighters had searched less than half the building and expected more casualties as they worked around the clock to remove debris bucket by bucket.
The district attorney’s sent a team to search for signs of a crime in the warehouse that was already under investigation by the city for possible code violations. The space was only permitted as a warehouse and neighbors had complained of trash piling up and people were illegally living there.
Authorities would not answer questions about the couple that operated the Satya Yuga collective, who were identified as Derick Ion Almena and Micah Allison and were believed to have been out of the building at the time of the blaze.
The couple had a troubled relationship, said Michael Allison of Portland, Oregon, the father of Micah. He and other family members persuaded his daughter to go to a drug rehabilitation center in 2015, but Almena talked his way into the clinic and convinced Micah to leave with him, Michael Allison said.
The family’s three children had lice and needed new clothes, prompting family to call child-protective services, said Michael Allison, who wept as he talked. But Almena and his partner eventually were able to win custody of the children back and cut off all communication with Michael Allison, the father said.
The building had been carved into artist studios and visitors and former denizens said it was a cluttered death trap, piled with scrap wood, a mess of snaking electric cords and only two exits.
Almena had leased the space from its owner and then rented five recreational vehicles and other nooks on the ground floor as living spaces, said Danielle Boudreaux, a former friend of Almena and Allison. They held regular concerts and dance parties, like the one Friday, to make money, Boudreaux said.
Shelley Mack was drawn there by the promise of living among artists and paying a reasonable rent in an area where the tech boom has created a housing shortage and exorbitant leases. She after a few months two years ago when the place failed to live up to its promises.
“Some people were happy to have a roof over their head even though there was no heat or no place to eat or that it was filthy and infested,” Mack said. “You just get sucked in because it seems like it’s this nice place and this artistic community and they talk a good game. There are people there that wanted to be there and believed in it. And I think I did too for a little bit. And then I afterward, I was like, um no.”
Story by The Associated Press.