The death toll from a fire that tore through a California warehouse which housed an artist collective has risen to 30.
Alameda County Sheriff’s Sergeant Ray Kelly said crews are starting to get deeper into the building in Oakland and that as they advance they expect to find more victims.
Officials have asked families of those feared dead to preserve any DNA evidence they may have, including hair or toothbrushes.
Only a fraction of the charred remains of the partly collapsed structure have so far been searched, as crews work in dangerous conditions.
The building, known as the “Ghost Ship”, had been carved into artist studios and was an illegal home for a rotating cast of a dozen or more people, with former residents warning it was a cluttered death trap with few exits.
“If you were going there for a party, you wouldn’t be aware of the maze that you have to go through to get out,” said Danielle Boudreaux, a former friend of the couple who ran the warehouse.
Up to 100 people were there for a party on Friday night when the fire broke out just before midnight. Fire officials are still investigating the cause of the blaze, but they said clutter fuelled the flames, there were no sprinklers inside and few exits to escape.
Oakland planning officials had opened an investigation into the building last month after repeated complaints from neighbours who said rubbish was left piling up and people were illegally living there. An inspector who went to the premises as part of the probe could not get inside, officials said.
The city had not confirmed people lived there, but a former resident said she had been lured in part by reasonable rents.
Shelley Mack said she was not told the residence was illegal until after she moved in a couple of years ago, and she stayed for four to five months. She said she was instructed to tell visitors it was a 24-hour workspace for artists and when outsiders or inspectors planned to visit, residents would scurry to hide clothes and bedding.
Photographs from before the fire showed the Bohemian community of musicians, painters, woodworkers, dancers and other artists had decorated the scene with Tibetan prayer flags, Christmas lights and scores of wooden statues of Buddha, the virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, elephants and dragons that sat atop pianos and turntables.
“It was obvious to me everyone who lives there cared about each other and were invested in a space they made a home,” said Alastair Boone, a student who arrived at the party with five friends at around 11pm.
He said he had just received a tour of the property and stepped outside when someone yelled that fire had broken out.
“In a couple of minutes there were flames coming out of the windows and black smoke was just billowing out of the house,” he said.