Oakland fire death toll, at 36, likely to climb as investigation - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Oakland fire death toll, at 36, likely to climb as investigation continues

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(CNN) -

It's already one of the city's deadliest blazes, but Oakland, California, authorities say casualties are expected to rise as they investigate the fire at the warehouse-turned-arts-space known as Ghost Ship.

Rescuers had to halt their search late Sunday, and roughly half of the two-story building remains to be scoured, officials say.

    At least 36 people have been confirmed dead, including teenagers and a deputy's son, in a huge blaze that gutted a converted warehouse during an electronic dance party Friday night.

    The fire spread so quickly that resident Jose Avalos had no time to help, he told CNN. He was in his loft when he heard someone call for an extinguisher. But before he could get down to offer his support, he heard someone say, "Fire! Everyone get out!"

    He grabbed his dogs and rushed to the front door where he fell into others trying to escape, he said.

    "By the time I was through the front doors, I could just see the flames coming and then they just engulfed the front archway of my studio," he said. "I looked back and I just saw smoke everywhere. I couldn't really see anything. Got out of the building and I just saw smoke and then flames coming out the doors and the windows."

    It could take weeks to identify victims through DNA and dental records, he said. Officials have asked victims' families to preserve their loved ones' personal belongings including hairbrushes and toothbrushes that could contain DNA samples. Alameda County Sheriff's Sgt. Ray Kelly added that officials were also working with the transgender community to identify some of the victims.

    The city's district attorney has activated a team to launch a criminal investigation. An arson task force has also been formed.

    "The scope of this tragedy is tremendous," Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said Sunday.

    Former California State Chief Fire Marshal James McMullen said firefighters and investigators must begin in the least-burned areas before moving "slowly and methodically to the area of origin, then to the point of origin." All this must happen before determining a cause, he said.

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