‘It’s excruciating’: Inside the heartbreaking recovery of 36 bodies in Oakland warehouse
The city’s planning and building department only goes into buildings when the owner seeks a permit or if officials receive a complaint.
For four days, they sifted through despair.
The fire that climbed walls and felled a roof had left a sprawling Oakland warehouse blanketed in charred debris. Among the ashes lay an unknown number of bodies. The expertise of two doctors who had combed through wreckage after 9/11 would help.
What they found would test the resolve of the searchers. The remains of high school sweethearts cradling each other. The teenage boy who turned out to be the son of a local sheriff’s deputy.
Officials had to ask family members and friends to gather items that would help with DNA identification of the missing: a hairbrush, an article of clothing, an old toothbrush.
Meanwhile, authorities fielded hundreds of missing persons reports — some from parents who had not seen their children for a while but thought they might be in Oakland — as well as pleas from desperate callers.
The bleak undertaking wound down Wednesday after cadaver dogs helped with one last sweep of the ruins. Authorities announced the search for bodies at the Ghost Ship had come to a close. The final number of victims: 36.
“It’s excruciating to walk through and to possibly relive those last moments when persons knew there was a fire and there was no way out,” said Mark Pazin, chief of law enforcement for the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
Some workers collected evidence in the warehouse that was examined outside.
“It was quiet. It was heartbreaking,” Melinda Drayton, an Oakland Fire Department battalion chief, told reporters during one of the news conferences in front of the warehouse.
As the recovery effort continued, deputies sat down with victims’ family members, many of whom shared mementos, photos and memories.
“They wanted us to know who we were dealing with,” Alameda County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ray Kelly said.
Others showed text messages they had received from those trapped by the flames. Many were simple: “I love you.” Some, harrowing: “I am going to die,” one victim wrote to her mother.
Firefighters battle a blaze that swept through a warehouse in Oakland during a concert Friday night. At least nine bodies had been recovered and more fatalities were expected, authorities said.(David Butow / Redux)
A firefighter walks through the burned-out Oakland warehouse on Saturday.(David Butow / For The Times)
Firefighters walk through a debris-strewn warehouse where a fire killed at least nine people in Oakland.(David Butow / For The Times)
Titus Cromwell, 4, places a flower from his family’s garden near the scene of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Daryl Norman, 63, of Oakland stops by the scene of the fire on his way to church in Oakland. “I had to come see for myself,” he said of the 36 victims. “God bless them.”(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
People stand at the perimeter holding flowers while watching crews remove material from what remains of the “Ghostship” warehouse fire, that burned and killed at least 36 people in the Oakland neighborhood of Fruitvale.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
An art installation near the scene of the Ghost Ship fire.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
People pay their respects Dec. 11 near the scene of the warehouse fire.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Mourners observe a moment of silence for the lives lost in the Ghost Ship warehouse fire at the Oakland Museum of California on Friday evening.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles TImes)
ATF agents map the scene of the fire investigation Friday at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland. (Francine Orr/ Los Angeles Times)(Francine Orr / Los Angeles TImes)
Rain falls on the memorial for victims of the Oakland warehouse fire.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles TImes)
Jacob Ramirez, 4, left, looks on while his grandmother Eva Ramirez, 52, consoles Hillary Morse, 22, right, of Oakland near the site of the warehouse fire in Oakland.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Flowers, candles and notes, memorializing those killed and injured in the “Ghostship” warehouse fire that burned and killed at least 36 people in the Oakland neighborhood of Fruitvale.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
A man who identified himself as Ben P. reads cards on Sunday at a memorial near the site of the blaze.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Kristen Grzeca, a music teacher at Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, hugs Monina Sen Cervone, director of world music and dance at the school, on Sunday at a makeshift memorial for victims of the warehouse fire. A 17-year-old victim was one of Grzeca’s students.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
After attending church, Teionna Cunningham of Oakland leaves flowers near the site of the fire.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
A Seventh Day Adventist group prays on Sunday near the scene of the fire on 31st Avenue in Oakland.(David Butow / For The Times)
Genevieve Griesau grieves before a church service at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland. Griesau lost four friends in the fire which broke out during a party Friday night at a two-story warehouse and artists’ studio in Oakland, killing at least nine people.(Francine Orr)
Flowers are left near an Oakland warehouse where a fire broke out during a concert, killing 36 people.(David Butow / For The Times)
Dino Graniello, left, and Jessie Xenakis light candles near the scene of a warehouse fire in Oakland that killed at least two dozen partygoers.(David Butow / For The Times)
People gather near the warehouse on Saturday.(David Butow / Redux / For the Times)
With recovery efforts now over, authorities have focused on the cause of the devastation.
Officials have said they are examining possible electrical problems with a refrigerator and other appliances, although they stressed they have not made any final determinations and that it could take several weeks to find an answer.
A small area along a back wall of the building is believed to be the fire’s point of origin.
“The fire was well-developed by the time second-floor occupants realized there was a fire going on the first floor,” she said. The building had two internal staircases connecting the top and bottom floors, but no fire exits to the outside from the second floor.
Investigators determined the warehouse was not equipped with fire alarms or a fire suppression system, Snyder said. They also still need to determine the layout of the gutted building.
Former residents of the warehouse have described it as a serious fire danger, littered with trash and old furniture and lacking fire sprinklers. Photos from inside the building taken before the fire show a maze of electrical wires as well as a heating system that appeared to be hooked up to portable propane generators.
City officials said it was zoned for use as a warehouse, not for housing or as a concert venue.
Jean M. Daly, a former arson prosecutor in Los Angeles and San Francisco who specializes in fire cases, said fire investigators study a flame’s burn patterns and intensity.
“The heavier the damage, the longer the burn, the more likely it is the area of origin,” Daly said. She added that wiring and appliances believed to be involved would undergo microscopic lab examinations.
The age of the warehouse’s wiring will also be an issue, said Robert Rowe, a former Downey Fire Department marshal.
“Back when this was a warehouse, its electrical system was designed for a particular purpose,” he said. “But modern equipment, laptops, chargers, sound systems, air conditioners and fridges place a very different burden on the system.”
The fire has raised concerns about nonpermitted dwellings throughout the city. Oakland officials have begun releasing administrative records concerning the building known as the Ghost Ship, which was the focus of nearly two dozen building code complaints or other city actions over the past 30 years.
At least three of the complaints appeared to assert that structures had been built inside the warehouse without permits or that the property was being used as a residence. Others cited illegal parking and mounds of debris piled up on the sidewalk and in an adjoining vacant lot.
An inspector who visited the warehouse 15 days before the fire to investigate a possible “illegal interior building structure” was unable to get inside.
According to Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, the city followed up by sending a request to the warehouse owner to gain entry. City Planning and Building Department reports released Wednesday, however, indicate only that the city sent a violation notice demanding debris outside the building be cleaned up.
Schaaf said the city eventually would release records of all violations and other actions related to the warehouse, documents requested by numerous news outlets under California’s public records laws.
By Wednesday afternoon, the Ghost Ship had nearly emptied.
Fire crews folded up ladders and placed shovels on the back of a vehicle. Tents stationed in front of the building for days were disassembled. TV news cameras disappeared. Oakland fire trucks backed out of the site and drove away.
Times staff writers Soumya Karlamangla, Javier Panzar and Paige St. John in Oakland and Joseph Serna, Hailey Branson-Potts and Matt Hamilton in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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