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Death toll in Oakland fire climbs to 33 as families, friends fear the worst

They had come together out of their love for electronic music and the underground scene that it fostered. The concert had been in the works for almost two months, billed on social media as a tour for the musicians associated with the L.A.-based label 100% Silk.

The location was secret until shortly before the show. When it went up on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter,  they gathered — about 70 musicians and fans —  late Friday in Oakland for a night of music and dancing at the Ghost Ship, the eccentric piano factory-turned-art space.

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On Sunday, two days after the catastrophic fire that turned the party into a scene of tragedy and ruin, they were being searched for and mourned on the same online forums that brought them together — even as recovery personnel combed through debris with shovels and buckets.

With identities of the victims slow to emerge, social media outlets provided the connection for family and friends from around the world, allowing them to share hospital numbers, compile a list of possible victims and express their shock and disbelief.

"Oh my god, Sara Hoda is missing in this fire," Carol Crewdson wrote about a friend, who had texted that she was going to the party and whose truck was found parked outside the venue.

Other notes were more plaintive.

"I'm a friend of Jason McCarty and am worried sick," Robin Voss wrote on the Facebook page for the event. "Any news?"

And one was less equivocal.

"Prayers for the family will be greatly appreciated," Ginger Kellogg Jimenez wrote after being notified that the body of her sister, Donna Kellogg, 32, had been found.

A "beautiful, giggly, wise person who will be very missed," wrote one of Kellogg's friends.

(Paul Duginski / Los Angeles Times)

As friends and relatives worried, prayed and mourned, authorities continued the grim, painstaking task of searching the warehouse's charred hulk, removing debris "bucket by bucket."

Thirty-three bodies have been recovered, officials said Sunday afternoon, with more than half the warehouse in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood still to be searched.

Late in the day, Alameda County authorities released the names of seven people who died: Cash Askew, 22; David Cline, 23; Travis Hough, 35; and Donna Kellogg, 32, of Oakland; Sara Hoda, 30, of Walnut Creek; Brandon Chase Wittenauer, 32, of Hayward; and Nick Gomez-Hall, 25, of Coronado. The name of one minor was withheld.

Sgt. Ray Kelly, a spokesman for the Alameda County Sheriff's Department, said the majority of the victims were in their 20s and 30s, but that some were teenagers.

Kelly said the district attorney's office has sent a team of criminal investigators to work alongside the sheriff's arson task force and the Oakland Police Department. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives sent representatives to help in the investigation, including with resources, forensics and laboratory work.

The investigators are working to uncover any potential criminal activity that may have led to the blaze.

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"When you have the amount of victims that we have, you don't rule anything out," Kelly told The Times in a telephone interview Sunday night. "People want answers. People want to know that the investigation into this fire is very thorough."

Flowers placed near the site of the Oakland warehouse fire.  Video by Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times

But for some friends and loved ones, the unanswered phone calls, texts and Facebook messages provided the answer they never wanted to hear.

David Gregory thought his daughter was staying overnight at her boyfriend's house when she didn't come home Friday night. Gregory did not know that Michela, a 20-year-old honor-roll student at San Francisco State, had gone to the concert with her boyfriend.

Gregory had stopped by the Alameda County sheriff's station Sunday looking for information and was asked to return with some trace of his daughter's DNA, such as strands of hair from a comb or brush.

"Try to put yourself in our shoes," he said. "You know there was a fire. And that she was attending that event. Then you see footage of the building on fire, knowing that everybody in there is being burned alive. It's the worst way to go … there is no worse way."

The tragedy took a personal turn for responders when they learned that the son of an Alameda County sheriff's deputy was among those who died.

"This tragedy has hit very close to home for our agency," Kelly said. "We're still dealing with that as we continue to deal with the other victims."

The lack of a complete victims list fueled an atmosphere of dread for some.

When Cory Grimes discovered that her roommate, Jennifer Mendiola, had gone to the concert Friday and was missing, she felt as though the wind had been knocked out of her. Grimes said her hands were shaking so badly that she was unable to send messages. She checked a Facebook memorial page that listed Mendiola as a victim. But there was no proof.

"There's a lot of misinformation right now, and that makes it hurt more," Grimes said.

The building was leased by a group calling itself the Satya Yuga Collective, managed by Derick Almena. Almena, 46, who lived on the second floor of the warehouse with his wife, considered himself a "realms creator" and built found-object sculptures and stage sets for musical gatherings.

On their social media sites, the couple posted pictures of mannequins hung upside down, colorful tapestries on the floor and wall, Hindu art, furniture from Almena's travels to Bali and large, exposed wooden beams throughout.

On the first floor of the warehouse, a half dozen RVs had been parked to provide living spaces for other residents. It had become a destination for traveling artists looking for a place to crash in the Bay Area, where affordable digs are notoriously difficult to find.

"It's a big ripple that's affected the entire community. It's a huge tragedy; it's a huge loss for people in Oakland. And there's a lot behind it," said Graham Patzner, who lives with his parents in Oakland and believes his friend, Nicholas Walrath, had attended the party. "Artists are constantly struggling to survive in this city because we're all getting kicked out."

The closely knit nature of the community only compounded the tragedy for some.

Isador Vorpahl posted on Facebook messages to 10 friends who were missing. "I hope it's not true, I hope you all are safe and alive," Vorpahl wrote. "I want you all to know the ways you've touched my life."

Jesse James Alexander, 24, said he believes three of his friends died in the fire. He learned about the blaze on Saturday morning when he received a text from someone making sure he was alive.

"These are all our friends. These are all our family. And they're all gone," Alexander wrote.

Richardine Bartee said she has been numb since learning that her friend Alex Ghassan was among the missing. Ghassan had recently moved to Oakland and was the father of two young daughters. On Twitter and Instagram accounts in his name, Ghassan appeared to have posted a video of the party, which he captioned: "Oakland reminds me of #JerseyCity so much at times."

Facebook also drew worried notes from parents abroad. Another panicked parent searched Facebook for answers in Finnish. "Any news of Hanna Ruax," posted Yrjo Timonen, whose Facebook page lists Helsinki as home. "She is my daughter."

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On Sunday night, Timonen posted, "Ei sanoja. Vain suuri suru." ("No words. Just a great sorrow.")

For Grace Lovio, who was worried sick over her boyfriend Jason McCarty, the silence was too great. She had been studying in France and ditched her final exam to fly from Paris to San Francisco.

They had last spoken on Friday, and on Saturday, she woke up to find that he had sent her a Facebook message. "Love you a zilliopzazillion," he wrote.

During a tearful plane ride, she carried with her a diary filled with the poetry McCarty had written for her.

On Sunday she was en route to her father's home in Concord to meet McCarty's parents, who are from Texas, for the first time.

"Until we know for sure that he's gone, I'm still holding on to some hope," Lovio said. "I'm pretty scared though."

Times staff writers Tracey Lien, Peter H. King, Paige St. John and Soumya Karlamangla, in Oakland, and Jack Dolan, Paul Pringle, Dakota Smith, Marisa Gerber, Sarah Parvini, Sonali Kohli and Matt Hamilton, in Los Angeles, contributed to this report.

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UPDATES:

9:43 p.m.: This article was updated with additional editing.

This article was originally published at 9:10 p.m.

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