Oakland warehouse residents’ harrowing survival stories: ‘Oh my God, all of these people died in our home.’
The victims — some as young as 17 — were found “throughout the entire square footage” of the warehouse.
Carmen Brito woke up Friday night to smoke and an orange glow coming from the corner. She’d had a long day at work and happened to go to bed with her clothes on.
In the time it took her to put on her coat and shoes, a wall that was 20 feet from where she was standing was on fire.
Brito rushed toward the front door of the Oakland warehouse known as the Ghost Ship.
“I was shouting for help and people started to run towards the fire. They were grabbing fire extinguishers to try to put it out … Nobody knew what was going on,” said the artist. “In the time it took me to walk from the back to the front, so maybe 30 seconds, I was already dizzy from the smoke, my vision was blurred.”
She got outside and called 911. A minute later, the power in the building went out.
Brito shook her head as she remembered how the building went pitch black.
She heard people trying to get out. One resident, she said, was standing at the door as black smoke billowed out, using his cellphone to light the way for people and yelling so they could hear their way out.
“He saved a lot of people,” she said.
Searchers on Sunday were still assessing how many people inside the warehouse perished. As of Sunday afternoon, the death toll stood at 33, but officials expect to find more victims. The Ghost Ship, an artists’ collective that appears to be a converted makeshift residential and studio building, caught fire Friday evening during a concert, which drew dozens to the space.
The warehouse attracted young people looking for reasonable rents in an area known for soaring real estate prices and a sense of artistic community. Officials have said the building was zoned as a warehouse and were investigating allegations of health and safety violations at the time of the fire.
“Everybody who was a resident there, we’re going back and forth between feeling like ‘Oh my God, I almost died’ to ‘Oh my God, I lost everything,’ to ‘Oh my God, all of these people died in our home,’” said Brito, tearing up.
Artist Nikki Kelber said she’d lived in the building for two years on the bottom floor in a unit facing the street.
“I know that’s largely why I’m alive,” she said. “The video they keep showing of the 20-foot flames shooting out of the window, that was my space.”
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)
Kelber woke up to hearing someone screaming “fire” and grabbed a fire extinguisher. She opened her gate and looked down the hallway and saw 15-foot flames, “a giant fireball.”
She then tossed the fire extinguisher, realizing it wasn’t going to do her any good, and tried to grab her cat carrier from a loft area.
“I was almost knocked unconscious by the smoke,” she said. Then the power went out. The smoke pushed her window open, which let in air that fueled the fire.
She grabbed her cat and ran out. “The fire trucks still weren’t here so I went racing around the corner screaming ‘fire,’ carrying my cat.”
Kelber and Frito said that they thought 22 or 23 people lived in the building, which was 10,000 square feet.
“It was one of the most amazing, beautiful spaces,” Kelber said.
She said somebody was always working on a different project, or cooking something.
“It was one of the most amazing, family-oriented spaces,” she said. “That’s why it was created.”
A tight-knit community of students, artists and others hung out together and lived in a communal environment.
“We weren’t just roommates,” Kelber said. “It’s also one of the things that makes it so hard to see it gone.”
In the two days since the fire, both women have struggled to process the tragedy and put the horrible events in perspective.
“It’s an awful tragedy that’s affected everybody who’s involved. We lost absolutely everything,” Kelber said. “But my cat that I carried out and the clothes I was wearing, I don’t have an ID. I don’t have a debit card. I don’t have a dollar.”
They also now face a more basic problem: finding a new place to live amid the Bay Area’s expensive rental market,
“We survived. We have to rebuild ... but where?” Kelber said. The artists are stuck in “a market that partially brought us here in the first place that keeps getting worse and worse and worse and worse.”
Brito faces the same anxieties.
“Thousands of people live on the streets. You can walk three blocks away and see people living in tents under the freeway.”
5:35 p.m.: This story was updated with more details about the warehouse residents and previous allegations of safety violations there.
This story was originally published at 4:55 p.m.
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