Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

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."

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.

Advertisement

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."

Twitter: @skarlamangla

ALSO

UPDATES:

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.

Advertisement
Advertisement