The death toll from a fire at a California warehouse where a rave party was taking place rose to 33 on Sunday, with authorities saying they had no idea how many more bodies they would find.
“When we started this investigation, if you would have told us we would have 33 victims, we wouldn’t have believed you,” Sergeant Ray Kelly of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department told reporters, adding that crews had searched less than half of the gutted building, reports BSS.
“I don’t know how many people are left in there. We have no idea how many people were in that building that night … We’re expecting the worst and hoping for the best in regards to how many more victims we find.”
Authorities had only searched a small part of the two-story building destroyed by the inferno
The fire in Oakland, near San Francisco, broke out on late Friday at the cluttered warehouse where artists and students worked and lived, even though the structure wasn’t licensed for such use.
The electronic dance music party, with between 50 and 100 guests, also took place without proper permits. The cause of the blaze was still under investigation but Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said the district attorney had activated a criminal investigation as a precaution to preserve options as the case unfolded.
Authorities on Sunday asked relatives of the missing to “eliminate future delays” in identifying victims by preserving items like hairbrushes and toothbrushes for DNA samples.
“We will ask for them as we need them,” said Captain Melanie Ditzenberger of the sheriff’s department coroner’s bureau.
Firefighters worked for 12 hours by night to enter the building, eventually breaching a wall to clear their way into the warehouse, said Oakland Fire Battalion Chief Melinda Drayton.
“It will take a few more days just getting through the building,” Drayton told reporters.
Images published online show artwork, pianos and wooden objects throughout the building, which helps explain how the fire quickly spread through the structure.
“It was filled end-to-end with furniture, whatnot, collections,” Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed said Saturday. “It was like a maze, almost.”
“There wasn’t a real entry or exit path,” she said.
In addition, firefighters said the building seemed to have no sprinklers or smoke detectors. Officials said the roof collapsed onto the second floor, which was connected to the ground floor only by a makeshift system of wooden pallets.
A dozen bodies were found in an area in the middle of the building, Drayton said. She added that the firefighters had taken every precaution to treat the human remains with respect.
Describing the atmosphere during the night of excavation, Drayton choked back tears: “It was quiet. It was heartbreaking.”
Most of those who perished in the blaze, which started at about 11:30 pm Friday (0730 GMT Saturday) were thought to have died on the upper floor of the warehouse known as the Oakland Ghost Ship, Reed said.
Some of the missing were apparently foreign students thought to be in their 20s and 30s, making identification more difficult.
The fire was the deadliest incident in Oakland since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in northern California, which killed 63 people.
The deadliest nightclub fire in the United States in recent decades occurred in 2003, when pyrotechnic effects by the rock band Great White set off an inferno at The Station nightclub in Rhode Island, killing 100 people.
Oakland, a city of some 420,000, was once deemed largely unsafe but is now home to a more affluent population attracted by affordable rent and proximity to San Francisco.