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Warehouse fire survivor: ‘People die right in front of me’

  • Christopher Farstad, right, a musician from Minneapolis, speaks with his father, James, in a cafe Friday, Dec. 9, 2016, in Gilbert, Arizona. Farstad was among a group of people attending a music event at a warehouse in Oakland, California, on Friday 2 Dec 2016, when a fire tore through the building, killing dozens of people. He described the scene as a “hellish situation.” (AP Photo/Brian Skoloff)

    (Associated Press)

  • FILE – this Dec. 7, 2016 file photo, candles burn next to a group of photos at a makeshift memorial near the site of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland, California. The Dec. 2 fire that killed dozens of people during a dance party in the warehouse grew quickly and became a raging by the time people on the second floor of the building discovered, trapping them on the upper floor, researchers have said. For those who survived, it was largely a matter of luck that the first cries of “fire” were heard, they were able to find their way through the smoke and darkness, or were near enough to a door or outside. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg,File)

    (Associated Press)

  • FILE – This 2010 photo provided by Sarah Cass shows Joey Matlock, also known as Casio, in Seattle. Matlock, a well-known visual projection artist who has toured the world, was one of dozens of people killed in a Dec. 2, 2016 fire that engulfed an electronic dance party in an Oakland warehouse, in the deadliest structure fire in the U.S. in more than a decade. (Sarah Cass via AP, File)

    (Associated Press)

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OAKLAND, California. – To walk in the Spirit of a Ship on a gala night was to pass through the doors of an old warehouse, and enter an exotic world full of rainbow lanterns, guarded by the figures of Asian deities and pulsing with a welcoming atmosphere.

Artists who came to play the electronic dance party this past weekend and in search of are under the impression of the sounds and the scene wanted to be among people who accepted them for who they were. Straight, gay, transgender, black, white or multi-ethnic, they wanted a place to feel secure.

“This party was a cross-section of all these communities,” said Nihar Bhatt, a DJ there to see friends perform. “This is a real counter culture. That is the reason why we call it the underground.”

But comfort among kindred spirits masked dangers that seems hard to have missed after the fire flew through the building, killing 36 people in the deadliest U.S. fire structure since 2003.

It was a death trap with no fire alarms and no sprinklers. Two sets of stairs from the second floor party will not lead to the only two outputs.

For those who survived, it was largely a matter of luck that the first cries of “fire” were heard, they were able to find their way through the smoke, or were near enough to a door or outside.

“To think when I was squeezing from that gate there were people suffocate in such a terrible thought,” said Alastair Boone, who had been socializing in a side yard and escaped to the street by a fence. “People die right in front of me and I didn’t know.”

The Ghost Ship is one of many Oakland warehouses converted into work and living places for musicians and artists. The common living spaces have helped foster a thriving underground art scene and offer space at a reasonable price in an area where astronomical rent hikes fueled by the tech boom have driven many people out.

The warehouse was the home of the Satya Yuga Collective founded by Derick Ion Almena, billed on Facebook as a “helter skelter” shelter and “Indonesian straw huts roles in the valleys and in alleys.”

It was in the industrial Fruitvale section of the city, which is home to a large Latino population and has a vibrant retail corridor of taco shops, check cashing businesses and a clothing store.

Almena and his partner, Micah Allison, leased the warehouse and the rented work-and living space. Almena also hired for occasional all-night parties. The couple and their three children were not home the night of the fire.

The building is owned by Chor N. Ng, however, was only allowed to be a warehouse and the city was investigating complaints about waste and the people live in.

A criminal investigation into the fire could lead to charges as serious as murder, prosecutors said.

The interior is constantly changing as tenants moved out and others took their place and again more than a dozen living spaces.

The first floor, a large public area was beautifully decorated in a Bohemian blend of eastern religious artifacts, tapestries, old furniture and colorful prayer carpets. Organs, pianos and guitars were scattered. Visitors described it as a beautiful work of art itself.

But the risks were many. It was a dizzying labyrinth built with scrap wood. Electrical cords snaked between devices, music instruments and lighting. A staircase was assembled with stacked pallets and a wobbly slope.

Bhatt was wary of all sorts of dangers. He would not promote a show because he doesn’t want the responsibility, but he was willing to compromise and take the risk of performing and attending events.

A number of Bhatt’s friends were the run of Dec. 2, playing a variety of electronic dance music, ranging from Djs mixing the sounds of musicians playing synthesizers and drum machines.

He came before the fire broke out, but never entered because he was talking with friends on the front. One of them, Joey Matlock, a DJ known as Joey Casio, had gone inside.

Bhatt heard someone screaming, “fire,” and the people began streaming out the door, followed by black smoke. Matlock was not one of them.

The researchers haven’t identified the cause of the fire, but they said that it started in the rear of the building. They ruled out a refrigerator as the cause, but were still looking for the electrical systems as possible sources.

The residents on the first floor, described waking up to the smell of smoke and barely have time to dress before being chased away by a wall of flames. Some in the party could work around the rickety makeshift stairs and jump from the loft in their hurry to get away.

Christopher Farstad, a musician visiting from Minneapolis, inhaled a lungful of smoke when he stepped out of a bathroom, and a moment before the lights went out.

After finding his way to safety in the dark, he tried to go back to help others. But the light on his phone was not bright enough and the smoke was overwhelming. He had walked on his feet, but was on his hands and knees.

He and others called for those who were lost within: “Come this way! The exit is here!” and she repeated.

Only a few came out.

People were weeping and embracing each other as the firemen tried to tame the flames. Bhatt was standing there and calls his friends and loved the learning of others close to him that were within. He lost seven friends that night.

“When 20 minutes go by and you’re watching a fire rage, there was a part of me that hoped there was still a place that people were leaving,” Bhatt said. “I didn’t want to say it out loud, but this was pretty much about it.”

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Smith reported from Fresno. Associated Press writers Olga Rodriguez in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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