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Oakland warehouse survivors describe escaping fireballs and 15-foot flames

Two residents of the Oakland, California, warehouse that caught on fire describe the scene, and their loss for neighbors who failed to reach safety.
/ Source: TODAY

Two residents of the Oakland, California, warehouse that caught on fire during a weekend party described the horror of being caught in the flames — and learning about a neighbor who failed to make it out of the building.

“I opened my gate, I looked down the hallway and I saw 15-foot flames and what appeared to be a fireball coming towards me,” resident Nikki Kelber told TODAY on Monday.

Kelber, an artist who lived at the warehouse for two years, then went back inside her unit to look for her cat.

"I was hit with a giant black wall of smoke that immediately rendered me unable to breathe or to see. And then the power went out," she said.

Kelber grabbed her cat, wrapped it inside her jacket and ran outside to safety.

The blaze started Friday night and had claimed the lives of at least 36 people, including at least one teenager as young as 17, as of Monday morning. The warehouse housed a collective that included many of the artists who lived inside the building, despite the fact it was not permitted for residential use.

Carmen Brito, an artist who made the warehouse her home for nearly a year, said it’s difficult in the San Francisco Bay Area to find affordable housing.

“At some point when you need somewhere to sleep at night, it doesn’t matter whether you have a piece of paper telling you that’s okay or not,” she said.

Brito said she and Kelber are mourning the loss of a fellow resident who failed to make it to safety.

"We lost one of our own in the fire, and we all knew right away,” she said of her neighbor, who was officially listed as missing. “We all watched our home burn and we knew that he was inside.”

Melinda Drayton, the Oakland Fire Battalion Chief, said investigators were still trying to determine how the blaze started.

“The large warehouse building was completely filled with combustibles and once those got started it was very, very, very rapid fire spread that made for a tremendously scary situation for firefighters entering and people trying to get out,” she said.

Drayton expects the fatality figure to rise as firefighters continue to look through the building and go through debris.

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