In Oakland, 36 people have died after a fire ripped through a converted warehouse hosting an electronic music concert. The fire broke out in what was known as the Ghost Ship, an artist collective that housed many young artists and musicians.  Many of the victims were young artists, activists and community organizers.   It is the deadliest fire in the city’s history.

They were musicians, fans and artists, mostly in their 20s and 30s. The oldest victim was 61 years old and the youngest just 17 years old.  Those who knew the victims have described it as not just some random gathering but a surrogate family of an eclectic group that had spent many similar nights together, dancing and making music. They knew and admired each other’s work, played gigs together, ran sound and video for each other’s shows.

The dance party was held on the warehouse’s second floor, which has partially collapsed. The 10,000-square-foot building contained a performance area as well as small artist lofts.  It lacked sprinklers and smoke detectors, and wooden pallets partially formed a makeshift stairway between the first and second floors, officials have said. It had just two exterior doors.

People familiar with the interior of the building describe a warehouse full of collectibles, musical instruments and art projects from around the world.  It was filled top to bottom with things, knickknacks, pianos, artwork, statues and random pieces of wood.

Possibly compounding the scope of the tragedy was confusing maze-like corridors that ended with Polynesian beds and lounge areas instead of exits. Residents built lofts they described as being neither on the first or second floor, but on the “1.5” floor. Instead of drywall, pallets, 2x4s, and other types of wood were used as partitions. There was a hole sledgehammered through the building’s perimeter wall to allow access to the auto shop next door. The floor was covered with carpet and the building’s electricity was hooked up to the neighboring auto shop.

Before all of the people on the second floor were able to escape down the stairs, smoke coming up the stairways trapped some of them on the second floor.  Those who were able to escape down the stairs had to crawl along the floor to avoid the smoke filling the building, and they struggled to find the front door due to the complicated layout.   Some survivors were saved by a person who stood at the front door and kept shouting its location so people still in the building could navigate to safety.

The fire started around 11:20pm and fire fighters were on scene just 7 minutes later.  The fire spread so quickly that firefighters at the station one block away had trouble even entering the building before immediately retreating to a defensive position. Flames engulfed the Oakland warehouse, tearing through the cluttered art collective as it hosted an electronic music event attended by up to 70 people, officials and tenants said.  Agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigating the scene have said they were looking at a number of electrical appliances, circuits and wiring in the building as a possible cause.  It took five hours to extinguish the blaze.

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