ABC News(OAKLAND, Calif.) — The California warehouse where a horrific fire left dozens of people dead did not have any evidence of smoke detectors, was equipped with a makeshift stairwell and had no exits on the second floor, officials said Wednesday.
The officials described a terrifying scene that played out as fire ripped through the building, known as the Ghost Ship, on Dec. 2, with people inside the darkened structure overcome by smoke as the building’s only exit was blocked by flames.
Alameda County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly said some of those trapped upstairs had just enough time to send final text messages to loved ones. Some of these messages read, “I’m going to die,” and, “I love you,” Kelly said.
The search for bodies in the rubble of the structure, in Oakland concluded Wednesday, with the death toll remaining at 36, police said.
Investigators are still trying to piece together what sparked the blaze, but the fire appears to have started on the first floor, said ATF special agent Jill Snyder. A refrigerator is being examined as a possible point of origin, but has not determined to be the cause, Snyder said.
Investigators are also working to determine if there was criminal liability for the fire and, if so, who was responsible, according to Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley.
The possibility that the fire was arson or intentionally set is not being ruled out, but there is no evidence to support it at this time, Snyder said. There is also no evidence that the warehouse contained smoke detectors, she said.
Officials found 36 victims inside the large warehouse and most were in their 20s and 30s. So far, 35 of them have been identified and 30 families have been notified. A 17-year-old’s name will not be released, according to the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office Coroner’s Bureau.
As many as 100 people were at the warehouse for a concert party when what authorities described as an “electrical fire” broke out just before midnight on Dec. 2.
Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed said the warehouse appeared to function as a residential building that hosted a makeshift artists’ studio, as well as parties like the one that took place that night. Most of the bodies were found on the second floor, which was accessible by a makeshift stairwell assembled with various materials, according to Reed.
That staircase and another on the second floor led to the first-floor interior of the warehouse and there was no exit to the exterior of the building from the second floor, Snyder said. Occupants were consumed by smoke before they could get out of the building.
Darin Ranelletti, the interim director of the city’s planning and building department, told reporters that the party at the Ghost Ship required a permit, which he said was not obtained. The property is under investigation to determine whether it was used to house people illegally, Ranelletti said.
The power went out inside the building when the fire started and the flames blocked the building’s only exit, making it difficult for people inside to escape, an official briefed on the ongoing investigation told ABC News.
Survivors of the inferno who spoke to ABC News recalled waking up to “smoke and an entire wall of fire” that was so powerful it opened a window, letting in oxygen that apparently intensified the flames.
The Ghost Ship is purportedly run by a married couple, Derick Ion Almena and Micah Allison, but the building is owned by Chor Nar Siu Ng, a woman who appeared to have little involvement with its use for artists’ studios and as a performance space for musicians.
“They’re my children. They’re my friends. They’re my family. They’re my loves. They’re my future. What else do I have to say?” Almena told ABC affiliate KGO on Sunday.
Almena also appeared to address the fire in a Facebook post early Saturday morning by saying that what he worked for was destroyed, but he failed to elaborate on what work he put into the warehouse prior to the tragedy.
“Confirmed. Everything I worked so hard for is gone. Blessed that my children and Micah were at a hotel safe and sound … it’s as if I have awoken from a dream filled with opulence and hope … to be standing now in poverty of self worth,” Almena wrote.
On Tuesday night, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf declared a local state of emergency to facilitate state and federal aid.
On Nov. 14, a city notice shows an “investigation pending” for “illegal interior building structure.” A day prior to that, the building’s owner was notified of a code violation. The records say “a ton of garbage [is] piling up on the property,” including “hazardous” trash.
Oakland police said that officers have responded to numerous calls about the warehouse in the past, but it is unclear how many. It is also unknown whether authorities will hold Almena, Allison or Ng accountable for the deaths in the fire.
The last permitted use of the building was as a warehouse, according to a press release from the City of Oakland. The city said it received complaints of blight and unpermitted interior construction at the building this year on Nov. 13. Days later, a city building inspector visited the property on Nov. 17 and verified the blight complaint, but could not gain access to the building to confirm the other complaint regarding unpermitted construction. The investigation is ongoing, the city said.
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