They called it the “Ghost Ship,” a concrete warehouse in the Oakland flats where artists lived and worked in a labyrinth of makeshift nooks and crannies.
Pete Veilleux, a plant nursery owner in the neighborhood, who called it “a really wild gallery,” said friends who lived there invited him to join the warehouse’s eclectic colony. “I considered it, but found the place to be too scary – for fire, but also because of a lack of privacy,” he wrote in a Facebook post.
It may have been a life-saving decision. At least nine people died Friday night and several dozen more were listed as missing Saturday afternoon after an explosive fire destroyed the quarter-block-long warehouse on 31st Avenue in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, near San Francisco Bay.
The 11:30 p.m. fire, which could be the deadliest in Oakland history, tore through the building during a party featuring musician Golden Donna’s 100% Silk West Coast tour. Emergency responders said there may have been as many as 100 people at the party.
Law enforcement officials said Saturday they did not yet know what caused the fire, but said the building appears to have been an illegal living and work space, and that city inspectors had gone out there on Nov. 17 to launch an investigation after getting calls about safety concerns. Officials said there did not appear to be fire sprinklers in the building.
Alameda sheriff’s Sgt. Ray Kelly said it may take 48 hours for emergency crews to sift through the devastated site in their search for bodies. The building’s roof had collapsed onto a second floor, or mezzanine, which partly collapsed onto the first floor.
“This is just a tragedy and there are no easy answers,” Kelly said at a noon news conference as crews sought to shore up the building’s walls to allow firefighters in to search. Earlier crews had recovered one body before being forced to vacate the building out of fear that the walls might collapse. Crews returned later in the day and recovered nine bodies.
Kelly said at a 6 p.m. briefing that the identification process for those victims had begun.
“Those victims were the most easily accessible,” he said. “The crews will be working throughout the night to recover additional bodies and will bring in a crane, Dumpster trucks and excavators to the scene.”
One who escaped with minor burns was Bob Mule, a photographer and artist who lives at the building.
“It was too hot, too much smoke. I had to get out of there,” Mule told the East Bay Times. “I literally felt my skin peeling and my lungs being suffocated by smoke. I couldn’t get the fire extinguisher to work.”
Golden Donna, the stage name of Wisconsin-based electronic musician Joel Shanahan, made it out of the building alive but reportedly had several friends missing.
Friends on Saturday set up a Facebook page listing names of missing people who had attended what was a party. The list at midday Saturday held names of 34 missing persons, most of them in their 20s and 30s. Kelly said several dozen people missing earlier in the day and feared to be in the building had been located by nightfall.
“Haven’t heard from my kid – please pray – he lives there,” one woman posted. “My cousin ... is still missing, please contact us,” another pleaded.
Many posters offered a place to stay. Others offered prayers from around the world. The Oakland A’s baseball team sponsored a fire victims’ fund at www.youcaring.com
Property records show the 4,032-square-foot warehouse is owned by Chor N. Ng through the Chor N Ng Trust. The total assessed value in 2015 was $43,249, according to Bee research.
Ng could not be reached Saturday, 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, other than those occasions when individuals worked through the night.
Standing outside the building Saturday afternoon, nursery owner Veilleux said he was worried about some friends who haven’t been heard from since the fire. One friend, who had three children living there, escaped unharmed, he said.
“It is just terrible, just horrible,” he said.
Gov. Jerry Brown, a former Oakland mayor, issued a statement Saturday sending his “condolences to the family and friends of those lost.”
Most of the victims were on a make-shift second floor that could only be accessed by one stairway made partially of shipping pallets, Oakland Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed told reporters. Firefighters said the stairs to the mezzanine were on fire and impassable when they entered the building Friday night.
The building had come under city scrutiny in recent weeks, said Darin Ranelletti, Oakland 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. Some of the complaints involved piles of debris outside the building. “We had opened an investigation and that investigation is ongoing.”
A party, like the one that apparently was taking place Friday night, would also have required a permit, but no permit had been issued, Ranelletti said.
On Saturday afternoon, the painted words “Ghost Ship” stood out in tall pink lettering on the front of the fire-blackened concrete wall along with spray art, including a skull that appeared to scream.
Al Garcia, who owns a business across the street, told the San Francisco Chronicle that he feared the warehouse could be a fire hazard. Photos of the inside space, before the fire, show eclectic artist’s nooks, filled pianos, carpets, woodworking, and art installation pieces.
Michael Rosen, who attended the event, wrote in a post for The Daily Beast “the space was subdivided into rooms with walls made of aged, dried-out wood.” Rosen wrote that he and some friends left the building to get a beer down the street minutes before the fire started.
The operator of the collective, known as Satya Yuga, was identified by the San Francisco Chronicle as Derick Ion, who reportedly lived there with his wife, Micah Allison, and children.
A Facebook posting erupted into a commenting war when Ion posted this early Saturday:
“Confirmed. Everything I worked so hard for is gone. Blessed that my children and Micah were at a hotel safe and sound ... it’s as if I have awoken from a dream filled with opulence and hope ... to be standing now in poverty of self worth.”
Angry commenters blasted Ion, a photographer, for lamenting material loss with so much loss of life, calling him “useless,” “self-absorbed” and “self-entitled.”
A Facebook page for the Satya Yuga collective includes pictures of the eclectic, over-stuffed interior with skulls, wooden boxes and area rugs on the floor. The collective describes itself as “an unprecedented fusion of earth home bomb bunker helter skelter spelunker shelters and indonesian straw huts rolling into valleys and down alleys.
“Seeking all shamanic rattlesnake sexy jungle jazz hobo gunslingers looking for a space to house gear, use studio, develop next level Shaolin discipline after driving your taxi cab late at night, build fusion earth home bomb bunker spelunker shelters, and plant herbaceous colonies in the open sun & air,” the Facebook page reads.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said the city is focusing for now on taking care of the families of people who are missing, and will push over the next few days to recover bodies and identify the dead. “That is what we are focused on doing. That is what I had the horrible tough job of as the mayor to do this morning to explain to those families, to those friends, and to those loved ones.”
Oakland police urged those concerned about missing people to call the Alameda County Sheriff’s Coroner’s Bureau at 510-382-3000.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Kelly said only a handful of people showed up at local hospitals. “It appears people made it out, or they didn’t make it out.”
Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak Marjie Lundstrom and The Associated Press contributed to this report.