Alameda County prosecutors have assigned criminal investigators to probe the fire at an Oakland warehouse that claimed at least 33 lives.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf announced the move as the grim search continued. As of 3 p.m., searchers had covered only about 35% of the burned building.
Schaaf did not provide many details about a criminal probe, which would be handled by the office of Dist. Atty. Nancy E. O'Malley. She said she was not authorized to announce a formal criminal investigation but said district attorney's investigators are on the scene actively reviewing evidence.
"It is far too early to have suspicions about what caused this fire," the mayor said.
Authorities also released the names of seven victims of the warehouse fire as the death toll rose to 33: Cash Askew, 22; David Cline, 23; Nick Gomez-Hall, 25; Sara Hoda, 30; Travis Hough, 35; Donna Kellogg, 32; and Brandon Chase Wittenauer, 32.
One of the victims is a 17-year-old minor whose name will not be released, city officials said. The victims' families have been notified.
There has been growing scrutiny about the warehouse, which was the subject of health and safety complaints that the city was investigating at the time of the blaze.
Alameda County Sheriff's Sgt. Ray Kelly called the death toll an "astronomical number" and warned that officials expect to find more victims as the search continues. Officials asked the families of the missing to preserve DNA samples of loved ones so they could be used to help identify victims.
"When we started this investigation, if you would have told us we would have 33 victims, we wouldn't have believed you," Kelly said.
The victims — some as young as 17 — were found "throughout the entire square footage" of the warehouse.
The magnitude of the loss "hit very close to home," Kelly said, adding that one of their deputies lost his son in the fire.
"Our department is hurting from that," he said.
Sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly told The Times in an interview Sunday night that the district attorney's office has sent a team of criminal investigators that are working alongside the sheriff's arson task force and the Oakland Police Department. The ATF has also sent representatives to help in the investigation, including with resources, forensics and laboratory work.
Kelly said the investigators are working to uncover any potential criminal activity that may have led to the fire. The probe is occurring as rescue crews continue to pull bodies from the wreckage.
Kelly said that the current focus remains on "search and recovery."
At this point, investigators are not ruling out arson.
"When you have the amount of victims that we have, you don't rule anything out," Kelly said. "People want answers. People want to know that the investigation into this fire is very thorough."
Searchers painstakingly sifted through the rubble of the building through the night. They described it as a horrific scene of destruction, with many concertgoers unable to flee when the fire broke out.
San Francisco music producer and performer Nahir Bhatt said he pulled up to the venue just minutes before the fire broke out. Bhatt, 39, said he stages events like the one at the Ghost Ship and was chatting outside the entrance with two of the performers there Friday night.
He said one of the performers went inside, the other stayed outside to talk. Then Bhatt heard shouts about a fire.
"The one who went inside is lost now," Bhatt said.
Bhatt said he saw about 30 people escape from the building.
"There was lots of panic. Lots of screaming," Bhatt said. "When the building filled with black smoke, which was almost a minute or two of it starting it seemed, there was no going into the building. It was so shocking when people stropped coming out. People just weren't coming out anymore."
On Sunday morning, people walked up to the caution tape barrier at the warehouse, trying to see beyond the TV cameras at the charred building. A couple held hands and stared forward. A man nursed a cup of coffee and leaned against a wall.
The smell of smoke lingered in the air. People had placed roses in a chain-link fence across the street.
John Ko's cousin is among those still missing. Ko came up from Los Angeles with some of his family after hearing about the fire yesterday.
They'd been at the victims' center nearby, Ko said, but they wanted to see the site of the fire itself.
"It's our first time here," he said.
The rising death toll makes the blaze one of the deadliest in recent California history. It has eclipsed the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, which killed 25 people.
The fire's cause is not known. Arson is not suspected, but Kelly said nothing had been ruled out. The warehouse isn't considered a crime scene.
City records cited allegations of at least three code violations at the building this year. In one complaint, city inspectors said there was a complaint of an illegal building on the property as well as piles of trash.
"This property is a storage [facility], but the owner turned it into a trash recycling center. The yard became a trash collection site, and the main building was [remodeled] for residential," according to city records.
City building and safety officials said Saturday afternoon that there was an open investigation into the warehouse and that inspectors had found evidence of blight. The building was permitted for use as a warehouse, not for housing.
They said that a party or concert at the property would have required a permit, which had not been granted. They also said there was no evidence that the building had fire sprinklers or alarms.
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 did not know whether people were living inside the warehouse. Asked whether the building had residential permits, he said: "Absolutely not."
"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."
The property is one of several owned by Chor N. Ng, according to her daughter, Eva Ng, 36. She said the warehouse was leased as studio space for an art collective and not used as a dwelling.
"Nobody lived there," she told The Times, adding, "It was an art collective."
She said she had asked her leaseholders about the issue and had been reassured that nobody lived in the building. "They confirmed multiple times. They said sometimes some people worked through the night, but that is all," she said.
The second floor had two exits, both wooden stairs, she said, adding that she believes the building also had smoke detectors. She was not familiar with comments by fire officials that the makeshift stairs consisted of packing crates.
Ng added that her mother felt terrible about the tragedy.
Kevin Longton, who lives at the Vulcan Lofts, less than a mile from the site, said the warehouse was well-known for holding rave-style dance parties. He went to one about a year ago, never saw any sprinklers and felt the place was an accident waiting to happen.
Inside, he said, were two floors with a huge open space on the first floor with lots of nooks and crannies. People had cordoned off loft-style sections on the first floor and decorated them with fabric and curtains. More than two dozen old pianos were strewn about the floor.
"There were people living there," Longton said. "I'm sure of that."
People who previously lived there recalled a building that lacked fire sprinklers and had a staircase partly made of wooden pallets. Partygoers recalled a rabbit warren of rooms crammed with belongings — pianos, organs, antique furniture, doors and half-finished sculptures.
"It was a tinderbox," said Brooke Rollo, 30, who lives less than a mile from the scene and had gone to parties there.
Photos on the warehouse's Tumblr page show a maze of rooms, with walls and dividers made from pianos, boxes, salvaged doors and other materials. Wooden rafters were adorned with hanging lanterns, holiday lights, bicycles, stereo equipment and exposed wiring.
Ben Brandrett, a mental health researcher living in San Francisco, attended a performance at the warehouse and noticed that a staircase didn't have a banister. "I remember thinking, 'This seems sketchy.'"
Firefighters who responded to Friday's three-alarm blaze described the interior as a labyrinth. Officials said organizers of the warehouse concert never obtained a permit for the event, so city workers did not inspect exits, fire extinguishers and other vital safety features.
Organizers of the concert posted a statement describing the fire as an "unbelievable tragedy, a nightmare scenario. ... We are a very tight community of artists and we are all praying, sending love and condolences to everyone involved and their families."
Witnesses said the warehouse, known locally as the Oakland Ghost Ship, was a collective where artists lived and worked.
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.
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."
The teens said they paid $10 to get into the warehouse party, which they found online, Garcia said.
Seung Lee arrived to the warehouse about 11 p.m. to catch the concert with two friends.
They walked through the building's maze-like first floor before heading upstairs where as many as 30 concertgoers were listening to live music, Lee said. One suggested they get some alcohol, so they headed to a nearby liquor store about 11:15 p.m.
Less than 10 minutes later, they returned to find thick, black smoke pouring out of the first-floor windows of the warehouse and flames shooting out of the back of the building, he said.
"I froze in disbelief," said Lee, who immediately called 911. "The hardest thing I'm having trouble processing are the people on the second floor. I saw them dancing and having a fun time, and 10 minutes later they are trapped in this inferno."
Lee, a freelance journalist, said the only way up to the second floor was by climbing a wooden staircase. He said he didn't notice any other exits on the second floor. There were about 60 to 70 people in the warehouse, Lee said.
Anyone with information about the missing is urged to call the coroner's office at (510) 382-3000.
St. John, King, Karlamangla and Lien reported from Oakland, Parvini from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Chris Megerian and Phil Willon in Oakland and Marisa Gerber, Sonali Kohli, Paloma Esquivel, Dakota Smith, Alene Tchekmedyian and Thomas Curwen in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
8:42: p.m.: This story has been updated with new information from sheriff's officials.
8:18 p.m.: This story was updated with new information from an eyewitness to fire.
6:20 p.m.: This story has updated with names of some of the victims.
4:30 p.m.: This story has updated with with comments from mayor.
3:44 p.m.: This story was updated with more information about the death toll.
3:30 p.m.: This story was updated with more information on the death toll and prosecutors' involvement.
12:50 p.m.: This story was updated with comments on the death toll.
12:30 p.m.: This story was updated with new death toll.
11:55 a.m. This story was updated with quotes from a man looking for a family member.
11:10 a.m.: This story was updated with new information about the number of bodies discovered.
10:20 a.m.: This article was updated with information about three victims being identified.