Investigators Continue Recovery Efforts From Oakland Warehouse Fire

Dec 5, 2016
Originally published on December 5, 2016 5:29 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Oakland, Calif., the death toll keeps climbing from the fire that tore through a warehouse party on Friday. Thirty-six people are now known to have been killed, and officials say that number may rise yet again as they find bodies of more victims. In a moment, we'll hear from a survivor of the fire, a woman who lived in the warehouse. First, NPR's Richard Gonzales has more on the investigation.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: From the outset, Oakland fire officials predicted a long and heartbreaking recovery process from the devastating blaze that struck at a warehouse converted into a living and party space for artists and musicians known as the Ghost Ship. Bucket by bucket, workers have been removing charred debris. The painstaking work was suspended overnight due to concerns about the structural integrity of one wall in the burnt-out building.

Officials also wanted to examine an area in the back of the building. Oakland Fire Battalion Chief Melinda Drayton says that's where they found warped and twisted metal scorched by high heat.

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BATTALION CHIEF MELINDA DRAYTON: We now feel very strongly that we have the section of the building that was the area of origin where the fire started.

GONZALES: But officials are not saying they found the cause of the fire. People who knew the interior say the illegal living spaces contained jerry–rigged electrical wires and propane tanks used for heating. Highly flammable wooden pallets were used as partitions and even a makeshift staircase.

A lot of people are asking a lot of questions about the city of Oakland's apparent failure to respond to reports of code violations. A city inspector recently visited the site and then reported that he was unable to gain entrance for a proper inspection.

The fire also has sparked a growing debate in the city over the proliferation of such live-work spaces for artists as many local residents are hard pressed to find affordable housing in the entire San Francisco Bay area. But for now, Oakland Fire Battalion Chief Melinda Drayton says city officials are trying to keep their focus on the recovery.

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DRAYTON: We're no closer to finding a cause, and we absolutely believe that the number of fire fatalities will increase.

GONZALES: Officials say a high percentage of the building has been examined, but much more work remains. After the overnight suspension of recovery efforts, workers were able to gain access again earlier today. The job will likely get even more complicated this week as rain is forecast and recovery workers and investigators have no roof to cover them. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, Oakland, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.