Authorities in Oakland, California now fear that up to 40 people may have been killed after a fire broke out in a warehouse that was hosting a late-night dance party.
Initially, nine people were confirmed dead, but a full search of the premises had to be delayed after the warehouse roof collapsed, with dozens still missing inside.
A local police spokesman confirmed that the coroner’s department is preparing to accept up to 40 bodies, warning that “a lot of casualties” are to be expected following the incident.
Bob Mule, an artist who lives in the warehouse, said that he smelled burning in the building and heard a nearby occupant shouting out for help, and the premises quickly filled up with smoke.
“It was too hot, too much smoke, I couldn’t see him,” he said. “I had to get out of there. I hope he’s okay … I literally felt my skin peeling and my lungs being suffocated by smoke. I couldn’t get the fire extinguisher to work.”
One unnamed woman who did not attend the party but has four friends still unaccounted for told local media: “I don’t have high hopes … we’ve just spent the night calling hospitals and listening to police scanners.”
Musician Aja Archuleta, who was due to perform on the night, survived the blaze, and told local media:
“There were two people on the first level who had spotted a small fire that was growing quickly. It was a very quick and chaotic build, from a little bit of chaos to a lot of chaos … I have lost 20 friends in the past 24 hours.”
The cause of the fire is not yet clear, but local media reports suggest that most of the deaths occurred on the second floor of the converted warehouse, where a concert was being held.
The second floor reportedly had only one point of entrance, and witnesses say it was connected to the first floor by a “makeshift staircase” constructed out of wooden pallets.
Oakland fire chief Theresa Deloach Reed said of the blaze:
“It must have been a really fast-moving fire … 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. It was filled end to end with furniture, whatnot, collections. It was like a maze almost.”
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has not yet confirmed whether any Australians were present at the event.
Photos: Elijah Nouvelage / Getty.