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Dance party death toll rises to 33

AAP logoAAP 4/12/2016

The death toll from a fire that tore through a warehouse hosting a late-night dance party has jumped to at least 33 as firefighters painstakingly comb through rubble for others believed to still be missing.

The blaze, which erupted about 11.30 pm on Friday already ranks as the deadliest in the United States since 100 people perished in a 2003 Rhode Island nightclub fire.

As of Sunday evening, only 35 to 40 per cent of the building had been searched, said Sergeant Ray Kelly, spokesman for the Alameda County Sheriff's Office. He said some of the victims were under 18 years old, although most were in their 20s and 30s.

Anxious family members who feared the worst gathered at the sheriff's office to await word on their loved ones. They were told they may have to provide DNA samples to help identify remains.

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, according to former denizens who said it was a cluttered death trap with few exits, piles of wood and a mess of snaking electric cords.

"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.

As many as 100 people were there for a party Friday night when the fire broke out just before midnight. Fire officials were still investigating the cause of the blaze, but they said clutter fuelled the flames, there were no sprinklers inside and few exits to escape.

Shelley Mack said she wasn't told the residence was illegal until after she moved in a couple years ago and stayed for four to five months, paying about $US700 ($A939) a month. 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.

"It's like a horror house. Just horrors in there," she said.

Photographs from before the fire showed that 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. Tapestries hung from the walls, mannequin legs and arms stuck out from the ceiling and a small wooden spot of floor was used for art performances.

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