By Thomas Fuller, Jonah Engel Bromwich and Conor Dougherty
OAKLAND, Calif. – Firefighters picking through the ruins of a warehouse here found more bodies overnight, bringing to 30 the death toll from a fire that ripped through a makeshift nightclub Friday. The search of the rest of the building could take days, officials said at a news conference Sunday.
"We will confirm at this time that we have 30 victims," Sgt. Ray Kelly of the Alameda County Sheriff's Office said.
In one of the deadliest structure fires in the U.S. in the last decade, partygoers at the two-story converted warehouse were asphyxiated Friday night by thick black fumes, which poured from the building's windows for several hours. Survivors stood across the street in a Wendy's parking lot, watching firefighters try to put out the blaze and rescue those inside.
"We will be here for days and days to come," Kelly said.
Melinda Drayton, battalion chief for the Oakland Fire Department, said rescue workers had spent the night methodically sifting through the charred warehouse, taking rubble to a lot across the street where it was hauled away "literally bucket by bucket." The building's roof had collapsed, and the site was a dangerous scene of debris, beams and other wreckage.
Excavators and other heavy construction equipment had been brought in to help with the search, Kelly said.
"It was quiet, it was heartbreaking," Drayton said of the search, in which firefighters had been able to gain access to only about 20 percent of the building. She said she did not believe the workers had come close to finding where the fire started.
Drayton was visibly upset during the news conference as she described the emotional and physical difficulty of the long night. She said the search would be a "long and arduous process." A 19-year veteran of the Oakland Fire Department, she said the fire was the most deadly conflagration in the history of the department that she was aware of.
She said that it could take up to several days to search the rambling, structurally insecure warehouse, while ensuring the safety of emergency personnel. The building, which they described as "a labyrinth of artist studios," had been under investigation for several months. Officials said escape from the building, which had only two exits, might have been complicated because the first and second floors were linked by an ad hoc staircase made of wooden pallets.
On Sunday, authorities said that three families of victims had been notified, but that other names would be released "in the coming hours." On Saturday afternoon, a list of those missing, compiled by friends and family, had grown to about 35 people.
Firefighters arrived just before midnight Friday, and the fire was still smoldering more than 12 hours later.
One survivor, Aja Archuleta, 29, a musician, was scheduled to perform at the electronic music party with her synthesizers and drum machines around 1 a.m. and was working at the door when the fire broke out around 11 or 11:15 p.m.
"There were two people on the first level who had spotted a small fire that was growing quickly," she said. "It was a very quick and chaotic build, from a little bit of chaos to a lot of chaos."
She added, "I have lost 20 friends in the past 24 hours."
Family members of the missing expressed anguish over spending hours waiting to know if their relatives were inside.
Daniel Vega, 36, said he was "infuriated" waiting to hear news about his 22-year-old brother, Alex Vega, who had not answered his phone Saturday. Vega said he had heard from a friend that his brother was at the party.
"Give me some gloves. I've got work shoes. I'm ready," Vega said. "Let me find my brother, that's all I want."
The structure had a permit to function as a warehouse, but not as a residence or for a party. Officials said they were investigating reports that the building had also been used as a living space.
The building, known as the Ghost Ship, in the Fruitvale neighborhood, was the site of an event that was to feature a range of experimental and electronic music, performed by a synth musician drawing from the "black, queer diaspora" and others, as well as a visual installation.
On Saturday morning, the event's Facebook page said admission to the show was $10 for those who arrived before 11 p.m. and $15 after that. By the end of the day, the pricing had disappeared and the page had turned into an emergency message board, as dozens of friends and family members posted about missing loved ones.
"A lot of these people are young people," Kelly said Saturday. "They are from all parts of our community." Some of the dead may be citizens of other countries, he said.
Images from the building's website depict a wooden studio filled with antiques, sculptures and curios. Old lamps, musical instruments, suitcases and rugs decorated the ornate space.
Emergency workers said they arrived to find the building filled with heavy smoke and flames. Bodies were found on the second floor of the building, Chief Teresa Deloach Reed of the Oakland Fire Department said Saturday.
"In my career of 30 years, I haven't experienced something of this magnitude," she said.
Even without a full accounting, the fire was one of the deadliest in the U.S. in many years. In 2003, 100 people were killed in a fire in a nightclub in Warwick, Rhode Island. An explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas in 2013 killed 15 people.
Deloach Reed said there were "no reports of smoke alarms going off." At least two fire extinguishers were inside, she said.
On the event's Facebook page, people distributed a spreadsheet that listed identifying information – age, height, weight, hair color, tattoos – and contact numbers for many of those who were unaccounted for.
Oakland's music and art scene was already struggling with high rent prices. The city's underground bands and artists live a seminomadic existence in search of warehouses, homes and other spaces to show art, play music and dance into the early hours.
Diego Aguilar-Canabal, 24, a blogger and freelance writer who lives in Berkeley and plays guitar in a band called the Noriegas, estimated he had been to three dozen house and warehouse parties over the past two years.
"The basic idea is people want to do loud things late at night, and industrial space is really good for that because there aren't many neighbors to complain," he said. "There's a lot of anxiety about income inequality and class warfare, and a lot of these artists are trying to do the best they can to have a community."
Aguilar-Canabal has been to the Ghost Ship once, last summer, and remembered it as a dim and cluttered area with a "maze" of furniture, canvas paintings on the walls and papier-mache hanging from the ceilings.
"The reason we left was that it had only had one source of water, which was a sink, and the water tasted really gross," he recalled. "We went to a corner store to get something to drink and were like, 'Let's just go home.' "