33 Bodies Recovered in Oakland Warehouse Fire; Death Toll Expected to Rise: Officials

"Several dozen" people who were initially reported missing have been found and reunited with their families

Thirty-three people were confirmed dead Sunday after a horrific Oakland warehouse blaze that has since been deemed one of the country’s deadliest structure fires, sheriff's officials said.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf announced at a news conference Sunday that the Alameda County District Attorney's Office has launched a criminal investigation into to the fire at the converted warehouse on 31st Avenue.

Meanwhile, firefighters continued to maneuver through the wrecked "Ghost Ship," where an unknown amount of people were attending a Friday night electronic music festival.

Thirty-three people were confirmed dead Sunday after a horrific Oakland warehouse blaze that has since been deemed one of the country’s deadliest structure fires, sheriff’s officials said. Jodi Hernandez reports.

Any potential criminal investigation must be officially implemented by the Alameda County district attorney, and Schaaf confirmed that a representative from that office is at the scene of the blaze and "engaged in the recovery effort."

"What I am doing is getting a team of city employees to gather every piece of evidence," she said.

A Facebook event page indicates that the fire sparked during a Golden Donna show — promoted by Los Angeles-based dance label 100% Silk — at the warehouse at 1315 31st Avenue. 

Crews, who arrived on scene Friday night within 3 minutes, have so far only been able to search about 35 to 40 percent of the building, sheriff's Sgt. Ray Kelly said Sunday. Schaaf added that crews continue to piece through the rubble around the clock.

"We are working as fast as we can," she said.

Victims range in age from as young as 17 years old to people in their 30s, but that scope could shift as the rest of the wreckage is peeled back, Kelly said.

"It's very unfortunate that we have to tell you that we have 17-year-old victims," Kelly said.

Among the dead include an Alameda County Sheriff's deputy's son and people visiting from countries across the globe such as Europe and Asia, Kelly said.

Sheriff's officials plan to begin releasing the names of victims Sunday after notifying the families. A total of seven people have been positively identified as of Sunday afternoon, according to Kelly. Kelly added that officials have been able to identify victims after comparing fingerprints or locating personal identifiers such as material found in wallets or purses.

"We're doing the identifications as fast as we can," Kelly said. "The sooner we can get those identifications done, the sooner we can meet with the families, offer counseling and begin to move forward from that. We want to get everybody identified as quickly as possible, however it's a very cumbersome process."

Among the missing include community members associated with UC Berkeley, the school confirmed Sunday. Meanwhile, "several dozen" people who were initially reported missing have been located and reunited with their families, he said. 

Capt. Melanie Ditzenberger with the Alameda County Coroner's Bureau reiterated that the families of people who are still missing to "preserve sources of DNA," including combsand toothbrushes, to "prevent future delays" in the identification process. She also asked that such items be stored in clean paper sacks, but not sent to the coroner's bureau. Officials will ask for them, if needed.[[404611656, C]]

"It's a terrible thing to have to say that, to have to come out here and do that, but that's what we're left to deal with here," Kelly said.

Officials suspect that artists were living illegally in the structure, although it was permitted for use only as a warehouse. Mark Hoffman, operations chief at the Oakland Fire Department, described the building as a "labyrinth," cluttered with woodworkers, sculptors, painters and more.

Thirty-three people were confirmed dead Sunday after a horrific Oakland warehouse blaze that has since been deemed one of the country’s deadliest structure fires, sheriff’s officials said. Elyce Kirchner reports.

"I think it really hits this community because there are a lot of warehouses," resident Fallon Burner said. "I live in a warehouse that’s very similar to this one. ... And that leads to things not being fire coded and stuff like this happening."

Oakland property records indicate the warehouse is owned by the Chor N. Ng trust, and multiple complaints have been filed against the owner. A family member speaking on behalf of Ng said they were "trying to figure out what happened just like everyone else" and were "sorry to hear of [the tragedy] and those injured and killed."

Oakland Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed said there was no evidence of smoke alarms or sprinklers at the now-destroyed building. Further, its charred roof collapsed onto the second floor, which in places plunged onto the first floor. 

When she tried to enter the building, Reed said she was "just able to get in about 10 feet." Kelly agreed that it has proven "tricky" to move around in the building because of debris, downed beams, a collapsed roof and leaking water.

The inferno reduced the building to a smoldering skeleton, and Kelly said weakened walls further complicated and delayed the recovery and identification process. Fire crews were forced to withdraw from the unstable structure Saturday because it needed to be shored up.[[404628345, C]]

Officials brought in heavy equipment, including cranes, dump trucks, excavators and bulldozers, to create a safe path into the building. They flooded the building with light while crews worked carefully so bodies weren't scooped up with debris, Kelly said.

Melinda Drayton, a battalion chief with the Oakland Fire Department, said she took up her post around 9 p.m. Saturday and oversaw recovery efforts for 12 hours.

Crews "breached the left side of the warehouse building" so firefighters and Alameda County sheriff's officials could move debris "literally bucket by bucket" from the ravaged structure to a vacant lot next door," Drayton said.

Firefighters dressed in "coveralls" used "buckets and shovels" to clear the scene in a "methodical, thoughtful, mindful and compassionate way," according to Drayton.[[404551156, C]]

When Drayton entered the building, she said she noted a "somber approach" to the difficult work being done.

"It was quiet. It was heartbreaking," she said, choking up.

Kelly echoed the same sentiment.

"This is very hard work and it's very slow and it's definitely taken a toll on first responders here," he said.[[404471386, C]]

Of the bodies recovered, one was found within a few feet of the breached wall, three were on the east side of the building, four lay at the center — where large and treacherous timber rafters had also landed — and within 10 feet of them were six more, according to Drayton. 

Although it was a "phenomenal feat" to comb through one-fifth of the warehouse overnight, firefighters still have a ways to go, Drayton said.

"This will be a long and arduous process, but we want to make sure that we are respecting the victims, their families and our firefighters' safety," Drayton said.

In the meantime, Oakland police spokeswoman Johnna Watson said officers have conducted an areawide search, noting license plate numbers of cars that victims may have driven to the warehouse. They are now trying to match cars with registered owners to aid in the identification process. 

It may take "considerable" time before all the victims are found and identified, according to Kelly. He added that officials are investigating the warehouse "around the clock" and will be there for "days and days to come."

"It appears that people either made it out or didn’t make it out," he said. "There’s not a lot of other injuries that have been reported to us at this time."

Drayton, who has spent 19 years with the city's fire department, said, "This is the most deadly fire in Oakland Fire’s history that I’m aware of." The 1991 Oakland Hills fire killed 25 people. "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 we’re honoring the victims and their families to bring them safely out of the building," Drayton added.

In the hours after the fire, the Bay Area community roared back with support for people affected by the fire. Elected officials, including Schaaf and Gov. Jerry Brown, offered their condolences; groups organized vigils; the A's and Raiders made donations; and Facebook rolled out its Safety Check so people could inform family and friends about their condition. 

The Alameda County Sheriff's Office and American Red Cross also set up a family assistance center at 2425 E. 12th St. People called 510-382-3000 for help.

According to Kelly, the center proved to be a great resource for people frantically searching for their loved ones.

"We have contacted every family member. We have sat down with them. We have talked to them. We have cried with them. We have spent hours and hours with them," Kelly said. However, that wouldn't have been possible without support from chaplins, city workers, Red Cross officials and others.

"The offers of assistance have been amazing," he said.

Separately, an arson task force is investigating the cause of the fire, but there’s no reason to suspect arson at this time, officials said. 

"It’s still under investigation," Drayton said. "We don’t believe we’ve even gotten close to the point of origin of the fire."

NBC Bay Area's Jodi Hernandez and Elyce Kirchner contributed to this report.

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