Nine people were killed and 25 missing after a huge blaze broke out during a rave party near San Francisco held in a cluttered, maze-like warehouse for artists, fire officials said Saturday.
Oakland Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed said most of those who died in the blaze that started about 11:30 pm (0730 GMT) Friday were thought to have died on the upper floor of the two-story warehouse known as “Oakland Ghost ship.”
“It must have been a very fast-moving fire,” she told reporters.
It was not immediately known what sparked the inferno at the electronic dance music party attended by 50 to 100 people.
By mid-morning Saturday, fire crews had not yet been able to sweep the scene and officials said they feared the death toll could rise significantly once rescuers were able to enter the building.
“We still have to do a more thorough search of the building and we don’t know the potential number of other victims,” Reed said.
The building, which housed artists including several who apparently lived there, had numerous partitions and a makeshift stairwell built from pallets.
Some of the structural changes made it extremely difficult for people to escape, Reed said.
“There wasn’t a real entry or exit path,” she said.
“I don’t know where the fire started, but I do know that the way the building was situated made it difficult for people to escape,” Reed said.
Fire-fighters were hampered in their efforts to put out the blaze by clutter.
“It was filled end to end with furniture, whatnot, collections,” she said. “It was like a maze almost.”
She added that it appeared no smoke detectors were activated in the building which also had no sprinkler system.
The fire raced through the structure quickly and got out of control at one point, forcing fire-fighters to pull back, reports said.
Friends and family of partygoers went to social media to try and find news about their loved ones, with some posting information on the event’s Facebook page.
“Please tell me you are safe,” one woman wrote, adding a friend’s name, while others posted prayers.
Felt my skin peeling
The rave party featured a little-known act called Golden Donna and several other performers. It was unclear if any of the DJs were among the dead.
“I literally felt my skin peeling and my lungs being suffocated by smoke,” Bob Mule, a photographer who lives in the building, told the local KTVU station. “I couldn’t get the fire extinguisher to work.”
News footage showed orange flames shooting into the sky from the roof and flaring out of the large windows.
Sergeant J.D. Nelson of the Alameda County Sheriff’s office said the coroner was preparing for 40 or more bodies, KTVU said.
The fire was described as the deadliest tragedy in Oakland since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in northern California that left 63 people dead.
The deadliest nightclub fire in the United States in recent decades was in 2003 when pyrotechnic effects by the rock band Great White set off an inferno at The Station nightclub in Rhode Island, killing about 100 people.