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The Death Toll In Oakland's Deadliest Fire Stands At 33

Dec 5, 2016
Originally published on December 5, 2016 9:22 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The weekend fire at a warehouse party in Oakland, Calif., has claimed more than 30 lives, and that's just the count up to now.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Local officials say they don't know how many more bodies they'll find as the recovery effort enters its third day. NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: To say there is profound grief in Oakland is to do little justice to the depth of emotions as people leave flowers and candles and wait to learn whether a friend was among the victims. A young woman who identifies herself only as Anna stands sobbing next to the area cordoned off by the police. She says her friend Conrad is missing, and she only knows that he attended a party in this neighborhood Friday night.

ANNA: He didn't say that he was safe. And I have no clue where he is, but it's very likely that he was in there. So, I mean, just in general, I want to be here to, like, show my support.

GONZALES: The fire began about 11:30 Friday night in a two-story warehouse turned artist enclave. Officials say the first floor was a labyrinth of small living spaces with hanging rugs and tapestries and old wooden furniture. Upstairs, Friday, there was a party with live music. Between the floors was a makeshift staircase made of wooden pallets - perfect fuel for a fire, say experts. The graffiti-marked building was known as the Ghost Ship.

FERNANDO VALENZUELA: It's kind of a scary-looking place. I wouldn't go in there. I wouldn't walk in front either.

GONZALES: Insurance salesman Fernando Valenzuela said neighbors had been complaining about the building for years.

VALENZUELA: Just the blight. This - you know, I love this place. I grew up here. To see the graffiti and the debris and garbage in the streets, it's just disconcerting, you know?

GONZALES: City inspectors were well aware of such complaints. The building was not permitted for residents or as an entertainment venue. There was no sprinkler system. But Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf says, right now, the city's priorities are the compassionate removal of the victims' remains, supporting their families and preserving all the evidence at the scene to determine what caused the deadly blaze.

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LIBBY SCHAAF: Our district attorney, Nancy O'Malley, did activate a criminal investigation. That team is on the site and working in concert with our other law enforcement partners.

GONZALES: Officials say most of the victims were young adults in their 20s and 30s, although some of them were as young as 17. Among the victims is a yet-to-be-named son of an Alameda County sheriff's deputy. County Sergeant Ray Kelly says that's why the recovery effort immediately hit home. It is a slow and tedious process.

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RAY KELLY: When we find a victim, we have to stop. We have to then conduct an investigation. It has to be thorough. Everything has to be documented. Then we can move that victim out, and then we begin the search process again. So we literally go one by one, piece by piece through there.

GONZALES: This warehouse fire will go down as Oakland's deadliest blaze. The 1991 Oakland Hills fire destroyed more than 3,400 homes and claimed 25 lives. This time, more than 30 people perished in a single structure fire. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, Oakland, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.