OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – Up to 40 people are feared dead after a massive fire broke out during a rave at a converted warehouse in Oakland, California.
The blaze began amid an electronic music performance at the warehouse, which had been converted into an artist’s collective.
Nine people were initially confirmed dead but a full search had been delayed after the building’s roof collapsed, and dozens remained missing. Officials said 50 or more people had been inside.
The county coroner’s office said it was preparing for up to 40 bodies, and a police spokesman said the victim count could well rise that high.
“That wouldn’t be too far off based on what I’m hearing. It is a lot of casualties at this point,” Ray Kelly, the spokesman, told KTVU news.
Bob Mule, an artist who resides at the warehouse, said he was downstairs about to start painting when he smelled smoke.
He said the building was quickly consumed with smoke, and that an artist in the cubicle next to him began shouting for help.
“It was too hot, too much smoke, I couldn’t see him. I had to get out of there,” he said. “I hope he’s OK.
“I literally felt my skin peeling and my lungs being suffocated by smoke. I couldn’t get the fire extinguisher to work,” Mr Mule told the East Bay Times.
Al Garcia, who owns a store across the street from the warehouse, said he found two teenagers who escaped the fire crying in the doorway, one of whom recounted the horrific experience.
“He told me the smoke overran them as they were coming down, and he told me there was people behind them and that no one came out behind them. And that’s why they were crying, they knew there were people still in there,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle.
The families of the 25 or more people who remain missing gathered nearby. Terry Ewing, whose girlfriend was inside the warehouse, said he was “hoping for the best”.
“The people in that place are very loved,” he said.
Most of those found dead were on the second floor, where the concert apparently took place. The first and second floors were linked by a “makeshift staircase” constructed of wooden pallets.
Teresa Deloche Reed, Oakland’s fire chief, described the building as “a maze”.
“It must have been a really fast-moving fire,” she said. “I don’t know where the fire started, but I do know that the way the building was situated made it difficult for people to escape.
“It filled end to end with furniture, whatnot, collections. It was like a maze almost,” she said.
Ms Reed said she could not comment on how the fire might have started. A witness said people inside had been smoking, and that there were many books as well as wooden furniture.
Fire extinguishers were found on the ground inside, but there was no evidence of any sprinkler system or that smoke detectors had been activated. The roof collapsed during the fire, and officials said there was only a “makeshift staircase” between the first and second floors.
“This is a true loss for the city, for the firefighters who responded, and the people who lost family and friend. Its just tragic, a real tragedy,” Ms Reed said.
Mr Mule, the artist who escape, described the warehouse as a “24-hour artist collective”, with 18 artists residing there.
Noel Gallo, a city councilman said parties at the warehouse had been an “ongoing challenge”.
Some of those who escaped the fire posted on the Facebook page for Golden Donna, the electronic artist who was performing at the warehouse. Family members searching for loved ones also posted on the page seeking information.
The deadliest nightclub fire in the US in recent decades came in Rhode Island in 2003. It was caused by pyrotechnic effects by the rock band Great White.