Oakland fire death toll climbs
The death toll rose to 36 in the Oakland warehouse fire Monday as officials said they’ve identified 11 of the victims. Firefighters temporarily halted their search through the rubble because of safety reasons.
City officials said early Monday they had to suspend the search for bodies because of what they described as dangerous conditions in the area surrounding the charred warehouse. A wall in the “Ghost Ship” warehouse was leaning precariously, making the site unsafe for firefighters and other workers, officials said.
At an early morning press conference, officials said they had identified 11 victims and notified their families. A list released late Sunday by the city contained only seven names, however. Six were from Oakland or elsewhere in the East Bay, and one was from the San Diego area.
“We want to identify as many individuals as possible, but it’s a very cumbersome process,” said St. Ray Kelly of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. He said one of the victims was the son of an Alameda sheriff’s deputy.
With 36 dead, the blaze is now the city’s deadliest ever, eclipsing the Oakland Hills fire of 1991. The wildfire killed 25 people and caused more than $2 billion in damage.
Still unknown was the fate of Jennifer Mendiola, 35, a Sacramento State University graduate who was believed to have perished in the Friday night disaster. Mendiola was attending the dance party at the warehouse when the blaze broke out.
“We are assuming the worst,” her sister-in-law Anna Mendiola told The Sacramento Bee on Sunday. “Her phone has been dead.”
Jennifer Mendiola graduated from Sacramento State in 2010 with a master’s degree in psychology and was due to graduate next year from UC Merced.
Memorials to the victims began springing up, in the vicinity of the warehouse and on the internet.
On a Facebook page devoted to the tragedy, Anna Mendiola and other relatives pleaded for information about their loved ones.
One of the victims, Travis Hough, 35, of Oakland, was celebrated as “a compassionate human being” and “a great singer” by his friend, Allen Chiu. Chiu posted a video of Hough performing the David Bowie song “Ashes to Ashes.”
Besides Hough, city officials identified the following victims:
Cash Askew, 22, of Oakland.
David Cline, 24, of Oakland.
Nick Gomez-Hall, 25, of Coronado in San Diego County.
Sara Hoda, 30, of Walnut Creek.
Donna Kellogg, 32, of Oakland.
Brandon Chase Wittenauer, 32, of Hayward.
Other names trickled out from other sources. The San Francisco Chronicle said the victims included Draven McGill, a 17-year-old at San Francisco’s Ruth Asawa School of the Arts. The website Berkeleyside.com said another victim was Jonathan Bernbaum, a Berkeley visual artist.
The quarter-block-long warehouse, on 31st Avenue near San Francisco Bay, had been turned into a cluster of art studios and sleeping space with pirated electricity and plumbing facilities. A former resident, Shelley Mack, said Saturday she was told to tell visitors that the warehouse was only a workspace and when inspectors came, she and others quickly hid their clothing, bedding and other clues that people were living there.
The daughter of property owner Chor N. Ng told the Los Angeles Times that the building was leased out as studio space, and the renters had insisted to her father that nobody was living there.
City officials said they received a complaint Nov. 13 about blight and “unpermitted interior construction,” and an inspector visited four days later. The inspector couldn’t get access to the building, however, and was unable to confirm the complaint about construction.
A criminal investigation is under way, Mayor Libby Schaaf said Sunday.
The fire broke out at 11:32 p.m. Friday during a party featuring an electronic-music group called Golden Donna 100% Silk. It was believed as many as 100 people were in the warehouse at the time.