The death toll in the massive fire at an Oakland, California, warehouse party climbed to 33 by Sunday afternoon, officials said, and the growing list of victims included teenagers as young as 17 and the son of a first responder.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf also said at a news conference Sunday afternoon that criminal investigators from the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office were at the site of the blaze and working with law enforcement.
“I want to confirm that we have activated the criminal investigation team,” Schaaf said. “That means that we are engaging in protocol that allows a criminal investigation to be conducted.”
Schaaf stressed that “it is far too early for us to have any suspicions about what caused this fire” and that only the district attorney’s office could announce any possible charges.
Alameda County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ray Kelly said the number of victims in the fire, whch broke out late Friday, had risen to 33 by Sunday afternoon.
Officials identified seven of the victims on Sunday night:
- Cash Askew, 22
- David Cline, 35
- Nick Gomez-Hall, 25
- Sara Hoda, 30
- Travis Hough, 35
- Donna Kellogg, 32
- Brandon Chase Wittenauer, 32
Authorities have made their way through about 35 percent to 40 percent of the building, and there was much more work to do, Kelly said earlier.
Kelly also said the tragedy at the warehouse had personally affected one of the first responders.
“This tragedy has hit very close to home for our agency â one of our deputies that we work with lost his son in this fire,” he said. “Our family and our department are hurting from that.”
Kelly also said some of the victims whom they recovered were minors.
“We do have some children in the ages of 17 years old, possibly younger,” he said.
The victims were teenagers to people in their 30s, he said. Some were from other countries, Kelly said, and authorities were getting in contact with those embassies and consulates.
Kelly described the painstaking process of identifying victims, saying the 24/7 operation was working to match fingerprints with identification they have found on some of the victims, in wallets, purses and backpacks.
The coroner’s office asked the families of the missing to preserve objects with possible DNA for evidence.
Kelly said that he had “no idea” how many more victims were in the warehouse but that the number could continue to rise.
“We are finding people throughout the entire square footage of that structure,” he said. “It’s so random. We’re finding victims where we least expect them.”
The sergeant said responders had come across a trailer within the structure “that looked like they were being lived in, inside the warehouse.”
The first floor of the warehouse was an artists’ collective made up of divided work spaces, which Fire Operations Chief Mark Hoffman described Saturday as a “labyrinth.”
Max Ohr, creative director of the art collective that leased the warehouse, told NBC’s TODAY on Sunday that he was working the door for a party on the night of the inferno and that about 70 people were “in the venue enjoying music” when he heard someone say there was a fire.
Ohr said there were no sprinklers in the building before the art collective began leasing the warehouse, and Hoffman said Saturday night that he saw no evidence of sprinklers.
The structure was last permitted for legal use as a warehouse, officials said, and it did not have the permits necessary for people to live in the building, known as the Ghost Ship.
Shelly Mack, 58, a former tenant who lived at the Ghost Ship for several months two years ago, described it to The Associated Press as a ramshackle structure where water and power were sometimes siphoned from neighbors and where a generator once exploded.
Mack said that she was told to describe it as a 24-hour work space for artists â rather than a dwelling â and that when inspectors dropped by, tenants hid their belongings.
“It’s a good example of people taking advantage of people because they had no other options,” Mack, a tech sales worker and jewelry maker, told the AP. “People make businesses off scamming people online when they’re looking for a place.”
In a Facebook post, a musician who said he had performed at the Ghost Ship said such spaces were the product of artists across the country being “pushed to the periphery, if not wholly exiled, by real estate speculation.”
“Artists will perform in the few spaces made available to us, and audiences will go to those spaces they feel comfortable, even if those are spaces are totally dangerous,” the post said.
“If we don’t want this to happen again, we ought to focus less on blaming the persons who operated this one particular warehouse, and more on how to carve out other types of alternative spaces in our cities, so we don’t have to hold our parties in death traps,” he wrote.
The AP identified Derick Ion Almena, 46, and his wife, Micah Allison, 40, as the Ghost Ship’s operators. They did not immediately respond to requests for comment from NBC News on Sunday night.
In a statement to NBC Bay Area on Saturday, the daughter of the warehouse’s owner said the family had no comment.
“We are also trying to figure out what’s going on like everyone else. We’re so sorry to hear about the tragedy,” Eva Ng said in an email attributed to her mother, building owner Chor Ng. “Our condolences go out to the families and friends of those injured and those who lost their lives.”
The building’s owner told NBC News on Sunday that they did not know people were living inside the structure.