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Former Occupant Calls Oakland Warehouse in Deadly Blaze ‘Sketchy,’ ‘Unsafe’

Oakland warehouse fire: At least 9 dead, death toll expected to rise 3:02

A man who once lived at a California warehouse that erupted in an inferno during a party Friday, leaving at least nine dead and dozens missing, moved out because it was "too sketchy to continue to stay there."

"The whole downstairs was a whole maze to get through," Russell Megowan, 28, recalled of the building known as "The Ghost Ship" which caught fire late Friday.

Megowan, who said he has lived in a number of warehouses throughout Oakland, started to build a room within the warehouse and artists' collective around two years ago. He said he planned to move in permanently but worried the place was too dangerous.

A unidentified man covers his face outside of a warehouse that was destroyed by a fire Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, in Oakland, Calif. Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

"The big problem there is that it was full of these wooden objects and no sprinklers — nothing. Pretty much one lone cigarette would’ve put the place up," he told NBC News in a phone interview.

Related: Nine Dead, Dozens Missing After Fire During Warehouse Party in California

Oakland officials confirmed there did not appear to be a sprinkler system and no smoke alarms went off.

The fire at the warehouse erupted at around 11:30 p.m. local time (2:30 a.m. Saturday ET) as a party was being held on the second floor, officials said. During the fire the roof collapsed onto the second floor, and portions of that floor collapsed onto the ground level.

Fire crews have so far found nine bodies but at least two dozen more people are missing, Alameda County sheriff's Sgt. Ray Kelly said. "We expect the death toll from this event to rise," he said, describing the twisted wreckage as a "maze."

Megowan said as many as 20 people might have lived there at the time he did, drawn by the cheap rent.

But the space was of particular note for its underground parties that it held, which could bring as many as 40-50 people. Parties were held two to three times a month on the second floor, he said.

Oakland Mayor: Warehouse Fire Death Toll Stands at 9, Had Received Complaints 2:05

Fire Department Operations Chief Mark Hoffman said the first floor was divided into studio workspaces for artists, calling the interior a "labyrinth." He said he didn’t see any evidence of sprinklers at the building.

Megowan confirmed Hoffman’s description.

"Even if you ran downstairs, it was difficult to find the exit," he said. "You had to go through a couple twists and turns. It was a labyrinth. There was no clear exit from the second story."

Perhaps most problematic was the makeshift stairwell, which was built of wooden pallets and spare pieces of wood, according to the former resident. Hoffman said there was a single staircase to the second floor.

Image: The Ghost Ship
The interior of the Ghost Ship in Oakland, California, is seen in this photo posted to the warehouse web site. OaklandGhostShip.com

"There was a single staircase accessing the mezzanine, it was apparently constructed out of wood and was on fire when the crews entered," Hoffman said, adding that the crews were unable to reach the second floor because of the blaze.

Josette Melchor, executive director of a foundation for the arts who is raising money for people impacted by the fire, said she has been at the warehouse and described access to the second floor as "there was literally this ladder thing you had to climb up."

The building’s owner told NBC Bay Area through a family member that there was a full staircase in the rear and it was up to code. The owner said they rented the building and rarely communicated with the renter.

A cause of the fire has not been determined. The building was last designated as a warehouse and did not have permits for residences or events, Oakland’s Interim Planning and Building Director Darin Ranelletti said.

There were two known entrances and exits, Kelly said, and while there was a report a third entrance may have been cut into a wall he said most of those at the warehouse likely would not have known about any other entrances.

Image: Warehouse Fire Kills Several People At Dance Party In Oakland
Firefighters work to clear the debris from a doorway following an overnight fire that claimed the lives of at least nine people at a warehouse on December 3, 2016 in Oakland, California. Elijah Nouvelage / Getty Images

Recovery teams expect to be on the scene for at least 48 hours, maybe longer, Kelly said at a 6 p.m. press conference. Excavators will be used to punch holes into the building and cadaver dogs and robots could be brought in, he said.

The building’s collapse has only made the building more of a maze, as rubble, wires, beams and wood litter the warehouse’s interior, Kelly said.

The Oakland police department is coordinating with the city and the fire department to build an investigation into the history of the building and to ascertain the fire’s origin.