Search completed at Oakland warehouse in fire that killed 36

Reuters News
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Posted: Dec 07, 2016 12:19 PM

By Curtis Skinner

OAKLAND, Calif. (Reuters) - Authorities said they concluded their search on Wednesday of a warehouse in Oakland, California, that was gutted by a fast-moving fire that killed 36 people during a dance party.

The blaze erupted on Friday in the sprawling two-story building known as the Ghost Ship, which was leased to an artists' collective. It was the deadliest blaze in the United States since 100 people perished in a 2003 nightclub fire in Rhode Island.

A special agent of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Jill Snyder, told reporters the fire started on the first floor and trapped party-goers above.

"There was rapid fire progression. Initial witness interviews have indicated the fire was well developed by the time the second-floor occupants realized a fire was going on on the first floor," Snyder said.

Officials have proclaimed a local state of emergency, potentially allowing for state and federal funds to help cover the costs of the response to the inferno. The declaration is set to go before the Oakland City Council for ratification on Thursday.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaff on Wednesday afternoon told reporters the city was convening a fire safety task force to enhance building and event space safety as well as inspection protocols.

She said a "flood of complaints and concerns" about other locations have come in to the city since Friday's deadly fire.

"We will learn from this tragedy to make Oakland safer," Schaff said.

The coroner's office has concluded autopsies on most of the victims, and the cause of death in all those cases was determined to be smoke inhalation, Alameda County Sheriff's Office spokesman J.D. Nelson said, adding that that is typical for a major fire.

Survivors said flames spread quickly and billowing thick, black smoke blinded and choked those struggling to flee.

Investigators are still seeking to determine the cause of the blaze. Officials have found no evidence of arson.

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 warehouse's second floor, which has 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 the first and second floors, officials have said. It had just two exterior doors.

City officials released complaint and inspection logs for the warehouse, which showed three complaints had been recorded by the city's building and planning department from 2005 to 2014.

Records showed an inspector visited the site on Nov. 17 to investigate a complaint about an "illegal interior building structure" but was unable to gain entry. The investigator did not return to the scene before Friday's deadly blaze.

(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Chris Reese and Leslie Adler)