Feb 14, 2017
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Trying to Look at Oakland’s Gutted Wreck
by Doniphan Blair (text/images)
HOLOCAUST IS A LOADED WORD.
Deriving from the ancient Greek for burnt sacrificial offering, it has been around since the Middle Ages for massive, all-consuming, murderous fires. Obviously, that applies to what broke out and, within a few minutes, consumed the ill-named Ghost Ship warehouse in East Oakland, in the early morning of December 3rd.
It was the deadliest American building fire in the last decade.
While holocaust is a good word for a bad thing, "ghost ship" is a bad name for what was a good thing, a place where artists could live, work and perform, although they were also encumbered by a low-rent landlord and a spaced-out master-lease holder. Words have power, as everyone, like your average witch or first grade teacher, will tell you, and tendentious names should be avoided lest they conjure what is suggested.
It was sunset on December 8th when I finally dragged myself out to what is now a graveyard for an eclectic mix of Oakland musicians, filmmakers, teachers, artists, therapists and others in attendance at the music performance at the warehouse that night:
Cash Askew, 22; Jonathan Bernbaum, 34; Em Bohlka, 33; Barrett Clark, 35; David Cline, 24; Micah Danemayer, 28; Billy Dixon, 35; Chelsea Dolan, 33; Alex Frantz Ghassan, 35; Nick Gomez-Hall, 25; Michela Angelina Gregory, 20; Sara Hoda, 30; Travis Hough, 35; Johnny Igaz, 34; Ara Christina Jo, 29; Donna Kellogg, 32; Amanda Kershaw, 34; Edmond Lapine, 34; Griffin Sean Madden, 23; Joseph Matlock (Joey Casio), 36; Jason Adrian McCarty, 36; Draven McGill, 17; Jennifer Mendiola, 35; Jennifer Morris, 21; Feral Pines, 29; Vanessa Plotkin, 21; Denalda Nicole Renae (Siegrist), 29; Wolfgang Renner, 61; Hanna Henrikka Ruax, 32; Ben Runnels, 32; Michele Sylvan, 37; Jennifer Kiyomi Tanouye, 31; Alex Vega, 22; Peter Wadsworth, 38; Nicholas Walrath, 31; and Brandon Chase Wittenauer, 32.
For biographies go
After I got lost and was driving in circles, suddenly, there it was: a standard street memorial, except it was ten times the normal size, with innumerable lit candles, notes to beloved, flowers, photographs, and a solitary black balloon. Missing were the plethora of pink balloons and stuffed toys generally gracing street memorials for young people in Oakland.
Actually, many of candles had just been moved from a block away to the front of the building, I was told by the guy from the contractor which erected the fencing surrounding the still-stinking, fire-darkened hulk, only the "G" of "ghost ship" visible above a charred mural of a skull.
"The fire department and police had the whole area closed off for five days," he explained, as he stood around, trying to take in the situation.
The authorities had removed the previous fencing and the 30-odd people in attendance had carried the candles and other memorabilia to right in front of the building. Most of those people, and a few new ones, appeared to be still there: chatting quietly, looking on, some praying, one or two lighting candles.
In addition to young people from the neighborhood, the hipsters and an elderly Asian woman, who seemed to be with an attendant, there was an older, white couple, who were being interviewed by the single television crew, an
ABC News affiliate
There had been up to 15 satellite trucks until a few days ago, a friend told me, their unworldly transmitter periscopes reaching up to 50 feet in the air, parked mostly in the fast food restaurant on the corner, a Wendy's.
The Oakland holocaust made international news. I first learned about it from a friend driving cross-country, who heard an early-morning newscast. I subsequently received concerned contact and condolences from Austria, Israel, Brazil, France and elsewhere.
It was only when I got to the site, six days later, after flying home to Oakland and writing two related stories—see "
Alex Ghassan, Filmmaker and Friend
" and "
Alex Ghassan: The cineSOURCE Interview
", that I finally cried.
After looking at the memorial for a half-an-hour, I noticed, across the street, an odd, metal tree, which had, hanging off of it, 36 six-inch wide hearts, each emblazoned with a name, including that of my friend Alex Frantz Ghassan and his girlfriend, Hanna Henrikka Ruax (their metal hearts were linked), which brought the whole fucked-up atrocity crashing down on me.
An understandable reaction to grotesquerie is outrage: How could this happen? Weren't there ways out, windows? What did I personally do wrong?
“There were barred windows, which is why they couldn’t get out,” I was told by an Oakland fire person, who worked there the second day, sifting through the rubble. “The bodies were like mannequins. The whole back half, where the fire started, was totally torched.”
Apparently it happened very fast, sparked off by a bad appliance or extension chord, of which there were many, spreading rapidly to the roof, which collapsed quickly. There wasn't much time to consider anything or for the fire department to arrive.
“When fire fighters deal with death this size,” the fire fighter also told me, “It is very difficult trying to process the tragedy, what happened there."
“Am I the man who should be held accountable? Did I build something… I can barely stand here right now,” said masterlease holder Derick Ion Almena, who was not at the warehouse that night. He had just reunited with his kids and had taken them to a hotel, so they would not be disturbed by the performance's noise.
To his credit, he came forward and appeared on "The Today Show", Tuesday, December 6th, visibly devastated, repeatedly voicing sorrow, apology and some guilt.
“I didn’t do anything ever in my life that would lead me up to this moment,” Almena said. “I would rather get on the floor and be trampled by the parents. I would rather let them tear at my flesh than answer these questions.”
Nevertheless, he did offer an explanation: “We made music. We created art. We opened our home. It became our home. It started off as an initial dream—an ideal that would host anything from at risk youth to the gay community to artists that couldn’t perform anywhere [else].”
In other words, in the very pricey Bay Area, this was a logical place for dreamers and artists. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf addressed a similar concern in her press conference, saying she wouldn't countenance "knee-jerk reactions," like quickly inspecting and closing a lot of alternative spaces, although there would be some regulation-adherence tightening.
Indeed, landlords are pre-emptively evicting people from illegal live/works across Oakland as well as around the Bay.
Mayor Libby Schaaf also announced a $1.7 million dollar grant from the city to support artists (see more info
City officials say they had no permits for residential or entertainment use at the location.
Of course, Almena must have known that the building was getting cited for violations and was riddled with fire-traps, from the rabbit warren of work spaces filled with flammable material and art to the staircase to the second floor performance space, which was constructed from cheesy wooden pallets.
So must have the owner of the building, Chor Ng, even though she only drops by once a month in her white Mercedes-Benz. Apparently quite wealthy, with a $5 million dollar real estate portfolio, according to reporters Kevin Fagan and Vivian Ho (12/10/16
), she is quiet and polite.
There has been no notice of any indictments.
And so it was that a confluence of dream and disregard brought, in the early-morning of December 3rd, tragedy and horror to revelers at a music performance in a decent neighborhood of East Oakland, near a great row of shops and restaurants, and a BART rapid transit station.
And where does this tragedy leave the arts community, not to mention family and friends?
If we can't give up or call in a heavy governmental hand, we must become inspectors ourselves. We must take responsibility, those who sign leases or promote events, first and foremost, but also the rest us, to be vigilant, proactively preventive, watching out for others and ourselves,.
As artists, we may sometimes live outside the law, but we must still have a code, building codes, even. And we must live by those codes, despite the delirium, drug induced or otherwise, simply so that we can, um, well, live.
In this way, the Ghost Ship holocaust might serve as a sacrificial burnt offering to a bridge between body and metaphor, dream and doing, action and ambivalence.
This is what I was considering, more or less, as I was looking out at the candles, mostly, but also at the hulking wreck, a foundered ship, the final physical representation for the ghosts of 36 people, artists, a 61 year-old German-born musician, even, as well as a friend of mine.
When I finally cried, looking at the metal tree and hearts sculpture, and walked back to my car, I didn't know what else to do except try to live each moment with honor and love and to carry on their good work, notably of my friend, Alex Ghassan, and his girlfriend, Hanna Ruax, but also the 34 others.
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on Dec 12, 2016 - 01:56 PM