Up to 40 feared dead in California warehouse fire

Oakland (United States) (AFP) - Fire crews in California on Sunday were searching the charred remains of a warehouse gutted by a blaze during a rave party, with officials saying the death toll could reach 40.

Relatives of dozens of people missing in the Friday night blaze in Oakland near San Francisco endured an anxious wait for news. Nine people have been confirmed dead so far.

The converted two-story warehouse was used by artists as a living and work space but had no license for this, officials said, nor for the electronic dance party under way when the blaze broke out. The cause of the fire was not yet known.

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Firefighters said the building seemed to have no sprinklers or smoke detectors.

Orange flames shot through the roof as the fire burned for hours and thick smoke billowed into the sky. The roof collapsed onto the second floor, which officials said was connected to the ground floor only by a makeshift system of wooden pallets.

Firefighters had to withdraw from the building to shore it up when part of the fragile structure began to move.

Sergeant Ray Kelly of the Alameda County Sheriff's department said Saturday evening that about two dozen people who were reported missing had been located.

But at least two dozen more remain missing, he said.

"We don't know how far into the process we are, because we don't absolutely have a number of people that we know are deceased inside of there," Kelly said.

"There’s still a lot of the building that needs to be searched," Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed said.

An official at the sheriff's office who declined to be named said early Sunday the death toll could rise to 40 or higher.

Most of those who perished in the blaze that started about 11:30 pm Friday (0730 GMT Saturday) were thought to have died on the upper floor of the warehouse known as the Oakland Ghost Ship, Reed said.

- 'Expecting the worst' -

"It must have been a very fast-moving fire," she added.

The electronic dance music party was attended by an estimated 50 to 100 people.

The sheriff's office station in Oakland became a center for relatives of the missing. The Salvation Army dropped off 50 meals for them, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Daniel Vega told the newspaper he is looking for his brother Alex and his girlfriend, who had said they were going to a rave in Oakland.

"If he is dead, if he is in the rubble, fine, I'll get over it. But I just want to find him," Vega told the Chronicle.

Al Garcia, who owns a supply company across the street, said that when he learned of the fire and went to the scene, flames were coming out of the windows and roof.

"I knew people were dead," he told the Chronicle. "There was no way anyone could get out."

Some of the missing were believed to be from overseas, making identification of the victims -- thought to be in their 20s and 30s -- more difficult.

The warehouse had numerous partitions added to the original building.

Some of the structural changes made it extremely difficult for people to escape, Reed said.

"There wasn't a real entry or exit path," Reed said.

The clutter hampered firefighters' efforts to put out the blaze.

"It was filled end-to-end with furniture, whatnot, collections," Reed said. "It was like a maze, almost."

Friends and families of partygoers took to social media to search for 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.

"I literally felt my skin peeling and my lungs being suffocated by smoke," Bob Mule, a photographer who lives in the building, told Fox television affiliate KTVU. "I couldn't get the fire extinguisher to work."

The fire was described as the deadliest incident in Oakland since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in northern California, which killed 63 people.

The deadliest nightclub fire in the United States in recent decades occurred 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.