Community gathers to honor 36 lost in Oakland fire
About 1,500 Oaklanders gathered at the Lake Merritt pergola on Monday evening, Dec. 5, carrying electric candles, LED poi, and glowsticks. The event organizer, Anthony Bonnett, asked that no open flames be present.
Friends and families who shared their memories were met with cheers of love and the raising of hundreds of little glowing lights.
Natalie Jahanbani spoke through tears about her partner, who was confirmed dead that day.
“I will tell her story, her name was Em, and I loved her so much, and I will never stop telling her story, that she was trans and proud, and lived honest and open, and I will continue to live in that legacy for the rest of my life. Thank you so much.”
Travis Hough’s father spoke about his son. “I just want to say that Travis was an amazing spirit, amazing son and loving son, and I think that everybody that ever came into contact with him, knew how much love he had in him…he loved everybody, all of you people—black, white, gay, transgender—he loved everybody the same, and he had no judgments. He even loved a straight old suburban dad like me.”
The vigil was a healing space for mourners. Many speakers expressed gratitude for the community that had come together that evening, hugging one another and feeling the loss of so many of our artists and friends.
This grief turned to anger when Mayor Schaaf was introduced, inciting jeers of protest.
“It’s ok,” Schaaf said. “This city is gonna go through a lot of emotions, and one of them is gonna be anger. And that’s part of my job, to hear that, and feel that.”
The mayor’s speech about safety was met with shouts to “go home,” and “let the families speak!”
“You’re for displacement!” one attendee shouted.
Berkeley’s mayor-elect Jesse Arreguín spoke earlier in the night.
“We must do more to make sure that artists have a safe place to live and to work,” he said.
At this, the crowd cheered in agreement as Arreguín continued that we should not “use this tragic incident as a pretense to shut down our warehouses and our arts and culture.”
This sentiment was well received by the vigil attendees, who went from openly sobbing or fighting back tears to cheering for Arreguín’s understanding of the nature of this tragedy.
TRAGEDY IN OAKLAND
The Oakland warehouse fire, in a building almost presciently christened the “Ghost Ship,” broke out on Dec. 2. By the time only half of the building had been searched for victims, it was already the city’s deadliest fire.
The Ghost Ship was a 10,000 sq. ft. warehouse illicitly being used as a live-work space for about 25 artists. It was being used as a venue to host Golden Donna’s “100% Silk West Coast Tour” when fire engulfed the building in minutes.
At least six of the deceased were former or current Laney College students, according to Peralta Executive Director of Public Information Jeffrey Heyman:
Nicole Renae (“Denalda”) Siegrist, 29, was enrolled in several Music Department classes, including The Choir and Jazz Ensemble
Sara Hoda, 30, took welding classes in Spring 2013
Donna Kellogg, 32, took culinary classes in 2010
Jennifer Kiyomi Tanouye, 31, attended Laney in Fall 2007
Ara Jo was an Artist in Residence, at Laney in Spring 2015, and at Berkeley City College in Summer 2008
Travis Hough, 35, submitted an application for Summer 2016, but did not enroll.
A special “In Memoriam” section on the six can be found here.
The search of the building is now complete, and the recovery teams have discovered 36 victims inside. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf has proclaimed a local state of emergency, to be ratified Thursday, Dec. 8 at a special meeting.
Most of the victims have been successfully identified, and families continue to be notified. So far, 26 names of the deceased have been released by the City of Oakland. One victim remains unidentified, and one victim was a 17-year-old minor whose name will not be released, though it has been leaked through other news sources.
The recovery search was halted Sunday night due to structural concerns for those working inside the building, but continued Monday morning.
The cause of the fire has not yet been determined, though officials believe they have found the point of origin.
The living situation at ‘Ghost Ship,’ in which artists pay low rent to live and work on their art, is not uncommon in the current housing climate of the Bay Area. These (often illegal) art havens exist to circumvent the great costs of living in the historically artistic area with a strong artist community.
Artists who do not want to be displaced either have to work multiple jobs to afford a safe, legal living situation, leaving little time to devote to their artwork, or risk their safety for the chance to focus on their art without going bankrupt.
The Ghost Ship was not permitted to be a living space, nor a venue. It was only permitted as a warehouse. It had no clear exit signs, no sprinkler system, and one narrow wooden staircase between floors, which is believed to have caused a death trap for those dancing on the second floor.
But, before the Ghost Ship became a mausoleum for 36 lost lives, where many of the deceased were found “protecting each other, holding each other,” it provided much-needed affordable housing for a community of gender and identity-fluid artists creating artwork outside the mainstream.
The community of housing-insecure artists in the Bay Area is concerned about the exposure of other secret art warehouse spaces, and the demonizing of young artists for perpetuating the risks of illegitimate housing situations.
But, as the East Bay Express writes, “the East Bay’s arts-and-music counterculture scene is not the bad guy. It’s the victim.”
STEPPING UP TO SUPPORT
Oakland sports teams have responded to the city’s loss in a huge way. The A’s, the Raiders, and the Warriors have joined forces to donate $50,000 each to this fund; $150,000 all together.
Sutter Health donated an additional $75,000. About 3,000 small donations have poured in as well, bringing the fund to a total of $407,967 as of Wednesday afternoon.
In Berkeley, an organization called Trackers Earth, which teaches outdoor skills to kids and adults, collected donations for those impacted or displaced by the Ghost Ship fire.
They collected warm clothing, backpacks, electronics, and gift cards.
The American Red Cross Bay Area Chapter has set up the Oakland Fire Family Assistance Center, offering grief counseling and other available resources. They have also supplied food and drinks to firefighters working to put out the blaze and conduct recovery searches.
A GoFundMe account created by Reina Lam raised almost $5,000, which will go directly to the residents of the
Ghost Ship who lost their work space as well as their home.
There is also a spread sheet entitled “Resources to support Ghost Ship” created to connect local people to the victims, offering either needed items, couches to sleep on, or shoulders to cry on. Over 100 locals have offered their assistance and resources on this spread sheet.
Community events have been sprouting across the Bay Area in response to the loss. Benefit concerts continue to raise money for the victims, and public conversations are being held to discuss solutions for the future of the arts community and DIY spaces. Our calendar of these concerts of events can be found here.