At least 33 dead in Oakland warehouse fire, dozens still missing

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Update 12/04/2016: This article has been updated to reflect additional information from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, Astra Brinkmann, Michael Rosen and the second press conference.

At least 33 people were killed in an Oakland warehouse fire Friday night and dozens are still missing, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said at an afternoon press conference Sunday.

The fire began about 11:15 p.m. at a warehouse called “Ghost Ship,” where many — including two UC Berkeley students — had gathered to attend a music performance featuring electronic artist Golden Donna. The Oakland Fire Department arrived three minutes after the fire began. The two campus students, Jenny Morris and Vanessa Plotkin, are among the many whose whereabouts are still unknown. Two UC Berkeley alumni, David T. Cline and Griffin Madden, have also been reported missing. As first reported by Berkeleyside, Nick Gomez-Hall, a staff member at Counterpoint Press in West Berkeley, is also among those missing.

At the morning press conference, OFD Battalion Chief Melinda Drayton said she took over for the deputy chief of OFD at 9 p.m. Saturday to start a night-ops period that lasted until 9 a.m. Sunday. Within the span of 12 hours, firefighters made it through one-fifth of the building. As of 3:00 p.m., officials have made it through 35 to 40 percent of the building.

“This will be a long and arduous process, but we want to make sure that we’re respecting the victims, their families and our firefighter safety to work slowly and carefully through the building,” Drayton said at the press conference. “What we were able to accomplish in 12 hours was a phenomenal feat. We have a lot more to go.”

According to Drayton, Oakland firefighters and members of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office had to gain access to the building by systematically removing debris from the building to the vacant lot next door — they removed the debris “bucket by bucket.” Firefighters then breached the wall with heavy equipment in order to enter the building.

OFD found one victim within a few feet of the breached wall and three more victims on the east side of the building, Drayton said at the press conference. At the center of the building, OFD found a total of 10 victims.

“This is the most deadly fire in Oakland Fire’s history that I’m aware of,” Drayton, who has been with OFD for 19 years, said at the press conference.

According to ACSO spokesperson Sgt. Ray Kelly, the bodies have not been found all in one area — rather, officials are finding victims throughout the entire warehouse. Officials broke the warehouse into four quadrants and have found victims in every quadrant of the warehouse.

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Dapree Doyle/Senior Staff

“We’re finding victims where we least expect them,” Kelly said at the press conference. “When we started this investigation if you had told me that we have 33 victims, it would have amazed me.”

At the press conference, Kelly said because first responders have not gone through the whole building, he anticipates that the number of victims will rise.

“We’re expecting the worst and hoping for the best,” Kelly said.

Officials have started to find minors in the building — including victims as young as 17 years old, according to Kelly.

Schaaf said that officials have informed seven families of the death of their loved ones. Oakland Police Department spokesperson Johnna Watson said that the names of the seven victims will be released on the city’s website and other social media outlets Sunday.

Kelly said that releasing names will be a slow process.

“This is going very slow for us because we have to go back to our coroner’s bureau and try to identify these people,” Kelly said at the press conference.

Donna Kellogg, a 32 year-old Oakland resident, is the only victim confirmed to have died in the fire, as first reported by The San Francisco Chronicle.

ACSO Captain Melanie Ditzenberger and Kelly asked family members of fire victims to preserve DNA samples to help the identification process. Kelly said that it was a “terrible thing” to ask of the families, but necessary to prevent delays in identifying the victims.

Kelly said ACSO has been “completely overwhelmed by phone calls.” He asked both the public and the press to stop calling the original phone number ACSO released unless they have a legitimate concern regarding a missing person.

Astra Brinkmann, a photographer and San Francisco resident, attended the event for about 10 minutes before the fire broke out. She said the blaze initially appeared minor but instantly grew.

“At first we thought it was a fog machine — and then we heard someone say ‘No, that’s a real fire,’ ” Brinkmann said. “But then it was just this huge rush of orange, it was just like — you’re looking at a room — and suddenly everything just ignited.”

Astra Takes Photos/Courtesy

Astra Takes Photos/Courtesy

Michael Rosen, an Oakland resident and former managing editor at The Daily Californian, also attended the event. He arrived about 11 p.m. and left with his friends — including Seung Lee, a former online managing editor at the Daily Cal — to grab a drink soon after. When the two came back about 10 minutes later, they saw the building on fire.

“I was in shock,” Rosen said. “I didn’t really process it until the morning after … it was kind of a surreal experience.”

Rosen, who wrote an article for The Daily Beast about his experience, said he stayed outside the building watching the chaos unfold for about 30 minutes. He remarked that the crowd outside was “morose” yet “hopeful.” According to Rosen, people were huddled together, watching the first responders and praying.

Rosen added that the party did not get out of hand — rather, it was a “low-key kickback.”

“It’s just important that it’s not characterized as a rave,” Rosen said. “It was just an intimate gathering between friends … I would not characterize it as something that was out of control.”

UC Berkeley student and former Daily Californian opinion writer Alastair Boone arrived at 11:00 p.m and attended the party for roughly a half hour. She stepped outside to congregate with friends in a lot next to the warehouse just before the fire broke out. Earlier that night, one of the men who lived there had given her a tour of the space, which she said appeared to provide an environment for artists to share their creativity with one another.

“There was a DJ playing — but it was ambient music, everyone was talking,” Boone said. “It really just felt like friends getting together to listen to music. The people who live there made their home there and they built their art there, so that’s what their community was.”

Watson declined to comment on the conditions of the building at the press conference, stating that officials are currently focusing their efforts on the victims and their families.

In a campus wide email, UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks said campus administration is working diligently with fire and police officials to obtain up-to-date information.

“We fervently hope that those who were injured will recover quickly and fully,” Dirks said in the email. “We also stand together, in solidarity and support, with all in our neighboring communities who have been impacted by this terrible tragedy.”

The cause of the fire is still under investigation, according to Drayton. At the afternoon press conference, Schaaf said the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office is launching a criminal investigation as a “precaution.”

Drayton emphasized the toll the fire has taken on the first responders as well as the victims’ family members and friends. At the afternoon press conference, Kelly said one of the ACSO deputies had lost his son in the fire.

“It is tragic to watch so many people perish from a fire fatality in front of your eyes and have to be stoic in your job, be professional in your actions and make sure that we’re honoring the victims and their families to bring them safely out of the building,” Drayton said.

A candlelight vigil to pay respects to the victims will be held Monday at 8 p.m. at 559 El Embarcadero.

Check back for updates.

Staff writers Jessica Lynn and Harini Shyamsundar also contributed to this report. 

Contact Chantelle Lee and Cassandra Vogel at [email protected].