Oakland firefighters halted, because of safety reasons, a search through the ashes and rubble of an Oakland warehouse where a smoky fire killed at least three dozen people.
Authorities said in a news conference Monday morning that 36 bodies had been discovered in the debris of the makeshift artists’ colony known as the “Ghost Ship.” The fire started about 11:30 p.m. Friday during an electronic-music dance party attended by 50 to 100 people, officials said.
Sgt. Ray Kelly, a spokesman for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, said the victims included teenagers and international travelers. Kelly said a deputy in the Sheriff’s Office lost his son in the fire.
“We want to identify as many individuals as possible, but it’s a very cumbersome process,” Kelly said.
Officials said Monday morning that 11 victims had been identified.
The effort to search for more bodies was halted temporarily due to a damaged part of the structure that was dangerously leaning and could pose a threat to firefighter and deputy safety, officials said Monday.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf told reporters Sunday that crime investigators from the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office were at the site and had started to work with law enforcement officials to determine the cause of the blaze.
“Our first priority is the humane and compassionate removal of the victims of this tragedy,” Schaff said.
One neighbor, Dessert-Rae Tejada, said she saw the fire tear through the Fruitvale-area warehouse Friday night from the window of her second-floor apartment at East 15th Street and 31st Avenue.
“Initially I saw a few of the flames licking out of the windows,” she said. “All of a sudden it was hellish. The smoke was just insane.”
Crews worked through Saturday night, breaching one wall of the unstable structure to allow workers to remove debris “literally bucket by bucket in a methodical, thoughtful, mindful and compassionate way,” Melinda Drayton, battalion chief with the Oakland Fire Department, said during a briefing early Saturday.
“We had firefighters with basically coveralls and buckets and shovels taking bits of debris out into the vacant lot (next door) to then be loaded into dump trucks and removed to an off-site location,” Drayton said.
Working with Alameda County sheriff’s deputies, they sorted through 20 percent of the building in a 12-hour overnight shift and had cleared about 40 percent of the wreckage by Sunday afternoon.
“This will be a long and arduous process, but we want to make sure that we’re respecting the victims, their families and our firefighters safety to work slowly and carefully through the building,” the battalion chief said.
Authorities asked families of those missing to save strands of hair or toothbrushes to be tested for DNA.
Some people believed to have been inside the warehouse had been reunited with family members, Kelly said. But “we still have a lot of families that are in that unknown stage, and they’re grieving.”
One of those missing is a woman with ties to Sacramento. Jennifer Mendiola, 35, attended Friday night’s dance party and has not been heard from since, said her sister-in-law Anna Mendiola of Orange County.
“We are assuming the worst,” Anna Mendiola said. “Her phone has been dead.”
Jennifer Mendiola graduated from California State University, Sacramento, in 2010 with a master’s degree in psychology and was due to graduate from UC Merced in 2017, according to a brief biography on the university’s website.
Her sister-in-law said Jennifer Mendiola balanced her school and work life, maintaining her studies and knowing when to have fun.
“She just loved life, and she loved going out dancing,” Anna Mendiola said. “She was adventurous.”
Some of those killed in the fire were believed to be minors, authorities said Sunday afternoon. Kelly said authorities have identified some 17-year-olds among the victims; others were in their 20s and 30s, he said.
The quarter-block-long warehouse is on 31st Avenue in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, near the San Francisco Bay. The dilapidated industrial space had been turned into a warren of art studios and sleeping quarters with jury-rigged electrical, plumbing and kitchen facilities, neighbors and residents said.
Property records show Chor N. Ng owns the 4,032-square-foot warehouse. Ng could not be reached this weekend, but a woman identified as her daughter, Eva, told the Los Angeles Times that the building was leased as studio space and that “nobody lived there.” She told the Times that the building’s leaseholders had repeatedly assured the owner the space was not used as a dwelling.
Pete Veilleux, a plant nursery owner in the neighborhood, often visited friends at the Ghost Ship. He said the warehouse contained numerous “cubbies” where people slept.
Former resident Shelley Mack said Saturday she didn’t know the dwelling was illegal when she lived there about two years ago, and was told to tell visitors it was a 24-hour workspace for artists. When inspectors or other outsiders came to visit, she said she and other residents scurried to hide clothes, bedding and other evidence anyone was living there.
The building had come under city scrutiny in recent weeks, said Darin Ranelletti, Oakland’s planning director. The building’s legal designated use is as a warehouse, he said. He said the city had not issued permits for anyone to live in the building.
“We had received complaints about blight and unpermitted construction at the property,” he said. “We had opened an investigation, and that investigation is ongoing.”
Most of the victims were on a makeshift second floor that could only be accessed by a stairway made partially of shipping pallets, Oakland Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed said. Firefighters said the stairs to the mezzanine were on fire and impassable when they entered the building Friday night.
The building’s roof had collapsed onto the second floor, which partly collapsed onto the first floor, Kelly said.
When the fire spread quickly Friday night, and thick black smoke filled the warehouse, many were trapped.
One resident, Bob Mule, described to CNN trying to rescue a friend who had suffered a broken ankle. The intense heat and smoke made it impossible, he said. His hands and arms were burned, and the back of his vest was singed.
“I had to leave him there,” Mule said. “I just ran outside, and I just watched this warehouse burn.”
Sacramento Bee staff writer Tony Bizjak and the Associated Press contributed to this report.