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Oakland Warehouse Fire Survivor: 'We Were A Family'

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Earlier today we spoke to one of the survivors of the Oakland fire. Her name is Carmen Brito. She's a student and an artist who was living in the warehouse. She says that early on the night of the fire, she had come home and gone to sleep.

CARMEN BRITO: I woke up to my room filled with smoke, and I could just see an orange glow coming from the other side of a curtain. And so I started calling for help and put my shoes on, put my coat on. By the time I walked out of my space, I could see an entire wall on fire. As soon as I saw how bad it was, I just headed straight for the front door - was already getting blurred vision and dizzy, and I just knew I had to get out and get fresh air.

CORNISH: Unlike many others, including at least one of the other residents, Brito was able to escape the fire. She had been living at the warehouse for 11 months. She says it was run by a couple who leased the space, Derek Almena and Micah Allison. But Carmen Brito told me she'd never seen or heard from the building's actual owner. And I asked what kind of safety precautions residents were taking.

BRITO: There were no sprinklers, but we did have routine conversations about fire safety. Smoking was not allowed indoors. Candles were forbidden. Even incense was considered something that you had to have properly contained.

We were told to have fire extinguishers. We had smoke alarms. The area that the fire originated in had both smoke alarms and fire extinguishers. You know, we're a block away from the fire department. All of these things didn't seem to matter.

CORNISH: And what can you tell us about the leader of the collective? Is it Derek Almena?

BRITO: You know, Derek invited me into his home and was incredibly supportive of my creative pursuits. I've known Derek and Micah for the last 11 months, and they're family to me. Their kids are like my nieces and nephew. This cuts very deep for all of us.

CORNISH: It sounds like it was more than a collective I guess or a place to live.

BRITO: We were family. It wasn't just a place for cheap rent or a place that you could make art. It was a village. It was a community of people. We looked out for each other. We made food together. We went out together. You know, we were connected.

CORNISH: So what's the last 24 hours been like trying to I guess find the names of people who are missing or to hear from their families? What's that communication been like?

BRITO: I honestly don't even know how to tell you how that feels right now. I've been going back and forth between, you know, dear Lord, I almost died - to, I have nothing - to, now people died in my home. It hurts. It's like this weight that I feel like I will never get out from underneath.

In the last 24 hours, everybody - it feels like the whole world is asking us what happened; what were you doing? And the only thing I have left is being able to tell my side of the story.

CORNISH: You said your side of the story. Is it that you're getting questions about the fact that this wasn't zoned to be a residence?

BRITO: I'm referring to people who were not part of this space essentially trashing it within hours. Honestly, like, I can't explain to you any kind of paperwork. I can simply say that this was my home, and I lost everything. And in this moment of feeling that I have lost everything, I've lost people that I cared about - there are strangers who died in my home, and people are asking me, did you have the correct form?

No, I don't - I mean we're talking about a fire that happened so quickly that even one minute - I am agonizing over whether that one minute could have saved somebody's life. That is how quickly this happened. And so people asking me about paperwork - I had nothing to do with that. All I can say is this was our home.

CORNISH: Well, Carmen Brito, I'm so deeply sorry for your loss. And I want to say thank you for speaking with us.

BRITO: Thank you.

CORNISH: That was Carmen Brito, a survivor of the Oakland warehouse fire and a former resident. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.