The night was young, and Seung Lee liked the vibe of the dance party just starting in an old warehouse in the Fruitvale District, so he and two friends decided to stay. But first they needed to get some drinks at the liquor store down the block.
They climbed down the wood pallets that spanned a gap in the staircase, and into the artist compound on the first floor. They made their way through the warren of canvases, sculptures, boxes, curtains, pianos, furniture, salvaged doors and windows, and stepped into the cool air.
A short time later, walking back with cans of Olde English and a bottle of Fireball whiskey, they froze.
Black smoke poured out of the warehouse’s first floor, and fire raged out the back.
By the time firefighters doused the flames Saturday morning, they found nine bodies, and were prepared to recover as many as 40. On Sunday morning, officials said they had recovered 24 bodies, but the search was still in its early stages.
“The hardest thing I’m having trouble processing are the people on the second floor,” said Lee, 24. “I saw them dancing and having a fun time, and 10 minutes later they are trapped in this inferno.”
He said he saw 30 people upstairs and dozens more below.
The fire swept through the building with such ferocity that the roof and part of the second floor collapsed, filling the rooms with an avalanche of burning debris.
Authorities could not safely access key parts of the building on 31st Avenue on Saturday. Late in the afternoon, they brought in cranes, bulldozers and excavating equipment, planning to cut a hole through the west side of the warehouse and go in with cadaver dogs.
“There are bodies that have been seen but have not yet been reached,” said Alameda County sheriff’s Sgt. Ray Kelly. “There are bodies trapped in there that we need to cut from the wreckage.”
Kelly said many of those inside the warehouse were young, some from foreign countries. He said he expects several dozen more deaths, in part because many friends and family still have not heard from those who attended the concert. With the amount of debris, he said, it could take two days to complete the search for victims.
“We don’t even know how far into the process we are,” he said. “We really, truly don’t know how many deceased there are.”
He said authorities do not suspect arson, but have not ruled it out. So far, they have not determined how, or where, the fire started.
“This is just a tragedy, and there are no easy answers,” Kelly said.
The fire is likely to be the deadliest in several years in California and the most destructive in the East Bay since the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, which killed 25 people and injured more than 100 others.
Oakland officials said the building had been cited for three code violations this year, including one for turning part of it into a trash recycling center, and one for remodeling another part for “residential living.” Earlier complaints cited dangerous levels of trash and debris around the building.
Kevin Longton, who lives nearby, said he got an uneasy feeling a year ago when he went to a rave-style dance party at the warehouse, known locally as the Oakland Ghost Ship. Seeing no sprinklers and the tight confines packed with all manner of flammable material below, he said, it looked like a firetrap.
“There were people living there,” Longton said. “I’m sure of that.”
Oakland Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed told the East Bay Times that it appears there were no fire sprinklers or smoke detectors in the building. She said the fire may have started near a “makeshift stairway,” which appeared to be the only way for people on the second floor to escape. She said the majority of bodies found so far were upstairs.
That stairway “was kind of like … they put it together with pallets,” she said.
The chief also said firefighters had to make their way into areas “filled end to end” with furniture, art and other belongings. “It was like a maze almost,” she told the East Bay Times.
Photos shared on the warehouse’s Tumblr page show exactly that. Exposed wooden rafters supported hanging lanterns, holiday lights, bicycles, stereo equipment and exposed wiring.
In some areas, couches and overstuffed armchairs sat wedged together on top of floors layered with brightly woven carpets. Tables and cabinets held jumbles of animal skulls, canvas paintings and stacks of carved wooden statues.
Witnesses described a horrific fight for survival as people tried to flee the flames.
Al Garcia, who owns a store next to the warehouse, said he talked to two people who said they were 17 and 18 years old who got out of the building.
“They said that black, billowing smoke was coming down the stairs,” said Garcia, 62. “They couldn’t see anything in front of them, anything behind them. The only reason they got out was they heard voices outside. The voices directed them to where they were going.”
Garcia said they told him that inside the building had “a lot of written material, a lot of books, papers and so forth and the place just took off.”
The teens told him they paid $10 to get into the warehouse party, which they found online.
The event was thrown by a Los Angeles-based label called 100% Silk.
The location was announced on Facebook just hours before the party, and 285 people checked in on the social media platform as attending.
Golden Donna, a stage name for Wisconsin-based producer Joel Shanahan, was scheduled to perform with label-mates Cherushii, Nackt and others. Golden Donna’s Facebook page posted a statement on Saturday that read, “Joel is safe but like many people he is heartbroken and has several friends among the missing.”
The 100% Silk imprint has played a crucial role in the development of independent electronic dance music in Los Angeles. Its parties around the area have drawn a wide mix of stylish, artistically minded enthusiasts.
The label was formed by the married team of Amanda and Britt Brown.
“What happened in Oakland is an unbelievable tragedy, a nightmare scenario,” they said in a statement on Facebook. “Britt and I are beside ourselves, utterly devastated. We are a very tight community of artists and we are all praying, sending love and condolences to everyone involved and their families.”
It is not known whether Amanda or Britt Brown was at the Oakland event, and 100% Silk did not respond to a request for comment.
Through the early-morning hours, people used the Facebook page to seek information about friends and loved ones who attended the concert. Some frantically listed the names of missing people and posted their photos, hoping to learn their fates.
“Making a new post with the names we currently have missing at the Sheriff’s office. PLEASE comment if you know 100% if any of these people are safe,” one person wrote.
Dan Vega, a car mechanic from Oakley, waited outside the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department for word about his missing little brother, Alex, and his girlfriend Michela Gregory, both 22 years old.
He was furious to hear about the pallets for stairs, the apparent lack of a sprinkler system.
“I understand it’s underground,” said Vega, 36. “I get it. I did it myself. . . But I’ve outgrown it.”
His mother had driven around looking for Alex’s car and found it parked near the BART station.
Vega called friends of his brother who said Alex had gone to the warehouse.
He is desperate to get in and find his brother himself.
“The police won’t let me near the building,” he said. “I’ve got my work boots on. I’m ready.”
The property is one of several owned by Chor N. Ng, according to her daughter, Eva Ng. She said the warehouse was leased as studio space for an art collective and not used as dwellings.
“Nobody lived there,” she told The Times, adding, “It was an art collective.”
She said her lease-holders reassured her that no one lived in the building. “They confirmed multiple times,” she said. “They said sometimes some people worked through the night, but that is all.”
She said the second floor had two exits, not just one, both wooden stairs, and believed the building also had smoke detectors. She said she did not know of pallets being used for part of a stairway.
Ng added that her mother felt terrible about the tragedy.
Neighbors said they believed people lived in the warehouse. Lee Leon, a custodian at the Native American Health Center, said the residents were “low key.”
Artists who rented the warehouse from Ng called it the Satya Yuga Collective. On their social media sites they posted colorful pictures of mannequins hung upside down, colorful tapestries on the floor and wall, Hindu art, and large wood beams exposed throughout. Leaders called themselves “warlord” and “mother superior.” They described the building as a former piano factory.
Oakland City Councilman Noel Gallo, who represents the district where the fire broke out, said neighbors have regularly complained about the building — particularly the fact that it had piles of trash and debris outside.
“We would complain to the manager that they had all that nonsense outside of his building, blocking sidewalks, blocking streets. And … he always had an attitude,” he said.
Gallo said he said he did not know if people lived there, but the building “absolutely” did not have residential permits.
“The reality is, there are many facilities being occupied without permits,” he said. “They’re occurring on Oakland’s streets, especially in neighborhoods like mine.”
Ben Brandrett, 27, mental health researcher who attended a folksinger performance earlier this year, described the building as a two story “fairly derelict” wooden warehouse, with an “artist commune” downstairs and a stage in an attic-like space upstairs.
He said there were two stairways then, and keenly remembers the one he used.
“It didn’t have a banister and seemed rickety and not very well supported,” he said. “I remember thinking ‘this seems sketchy.’”
Times staff writers Randall Roberts, Ben Poston, Russ Mitchell, Gale Holland and Laura J. Nelson contributed to this story.
8:30 a.m.: The story was updated with rising death toll.
This article was originally published at at 3 a.m.