OAKLAND (CBS SF) – Firefighters have not faced such a challenging task since the morning following the deadly 1991 Oakland Hills Fire.
It was in those early hours after the massive urban firestorm, that block after block of smoldering ruins in neighborhoods like Broadway, needed to be meticulously searched for potential victims.
At the site of the Ghost Ship Fire, dozens of firefighters and work crews were carefully searching and removing debris from the remains of the two-story warehouse in an effort to find the bodies of victims and evidence to what caused the deadly blaze Friday night.
Continuing Coverage: Deadly Oakland Warehouse Fire
It began on Saturday with crews cutting a new entrance in the side of the building to allow firefighters access to the shell of the building. The roof had pancaked the second and first floors, trapping bodies under tons of debris.
Heavy equipment needed to be used. Crews worked with city engineers to shore-up the remaining walls.
On Monday, a massive crane was brought in requiring that the power being cut off to neighboring homes for as long as 12 hours.
That was just to start the search. Then the gruesome, real painstaking work began.
Alameda County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly said the building had been divided into four quadrants with a search team aside to each.
“Our teams are literally going bucketful-by-bucketful,” said Kelly of the search and debris removal process. “So the progress is really slow. When we find a victim we have to stop, conduct an investigation. It has to be thorough…And then we begin the search process again.”
Sheriff Greg Ahern continued explaining the process from there.
“We take the buckets by hand – take the debris out that we can,” he said. “That material will be taken to a secure location where we go through it a second time with cadaver dogs … To make sure haven’t missed one thing.”
On Sunday night, recovery teams noticed a wall starting to wobble. Recovery work was halted until Monday morning.
“For us as firefighters, to work under a wobbly, potentially collapsing exterior wall is extremely dangerous,” Oakland Fire Department Battalion Chief Melinda Drayton said at a press conference Monday morning. “We will not put our firefighters in danger at this point, and we will not put Alameda County Sheriff in that precarious situation with us.”
Drayton said 70 percent of the building had been searched with more victims likely.
She said firefighters plan to be methodical once the search resumes, despite wet weather in the forecast for later this week.
“We will not be going faster to get ahead of the rain. So we’re going to be just as comprehensive, just as methodical and just as analytical so we can be successful in a full recovery in the next few days,” Drayton said.
And then for some of the Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies searching, the task took on a personal twist.
Among the victims was 17-year-old Draven McGill, a junior at the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts. McGill was the son of Phil McGill, a deputy for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office.
“It’s extremely tragic. To imagine the loss of your 17-year-old son is horrifying,” Ahern said in a Monday afternoon press conference. “And it really touches home with all of our people who worked alongside our deputy for the past 10 years. So it is really emotional for people working on this site and the families that have lost a loved one.”