Oakland warehouse fire toll rises to 36

San Francisco: The death toll from a fire at a California warehouse crowded with dance party revelers rose to 36 Monday as fire officials announced they had suspended work because the structure was at risk of collapsing.
Alameda County Deputy Sheriff Tya Modeste said 11 of the 36 bodies recovered so far at the site in Oakland have been positively identified. Previously, the toll had stood at 33.
“We’re no closer to finding a cause and we absolutely believe that the number of fire fatalities will increase,” Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed said.
The fire erupted Friday night in a warehouse known as the Oakland Ghost Ship as a rave attended by between 50 and 100 people was under way.
It spread quickly through the structure, trapping partygoers whose bodies were found scattered through the building’s mazelike interior.
Reed said firefighters have reached an area in the back of the building where they believe the fire originated.
The area was cordoned off and work was suspended there late Sunday so that federal investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives could gain access.
But all recovery work was halted shortly after midnight after crews noticed that a parapet atop the building’s front exterior wall was leaning in.
“For us firefighters working under a wobbly, potentially collapsing exterior wall is extremely dangerous,” said Reed. “We will not put our firefighters in danger at this point.”
She said work would resume after structural engineers examine the site and come up with a plan.
Survivors spoke Sunday of the speed with which Friday night’s fire spread through the warehouse.
Photographer Chris Nechodom, who was at the dance party, said people first thought the smoke was coming from a fog machine.
“And then it got a little thicker,” he said. “It all happened within seconds. We started seeing people running around, frantic and screaming ‘fire.’”
In a macabre indication of what the fire may have done to the bodies, authorities are asking relatives to preserve hairbrushes and toothbrushes to assist in matching DNA samples.
“We will ask for them as we need them,” said Captain Melanie Ditzenberger of the sheriff’s department coroner’s bureau.
Although the cause of the fast-moving blaze remains under investigation, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said the district attorney had opened a criminal investigation as a precaution to preserve options as the case unfolds.
“You have to understand that the scope of this tragedy is tremendous,” she said. “We have many, many witnesses to interview. We are in the process of doing that.”
“We’re finding people throughout the entire square footage of that structure,” Kelly said. “It’s so random. We’re finding victims where we least expect it.”
— AFP