At the very least: stories that capture the contour of a life. A Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter on the Ghost Ship fire and tales of human strife and resilience.
On a chilly Sunday morning last December, I found myself standing in the heart of Oakland, at the intersection of East 13th Street and Fruitvale Avenue. It took me a few moments to soak in the chaos. There, amidst run-down cell phone stores, fast food chains, panaderías, rumbling BART trains, and the usual drone of life in the city’s dynamic Fruitvale District, stood the freshly charred remains of the Ghost Ship warehouse. The surrounding block had been cordoned off with yellow police tape, and already there were dozens of reporters and onlookers—and a growing memorial of flowers and posters dedicated to the young people who lost their lives in the inferno the night before. It would prove to be one of Oakland’s deadliest fires.
Forensic investigators combed through the cluttered debris as coroner officials worked around the clock to recover the victims. There would be 36 in all.
On that morning, just a few weeks before Christmas, I joined several colleagues from the East Bay Times and the Mercury News in reporting on a tragedy that would later reveal alarming and illegal housing conditions at the warehouse and beyond, made possible by negligent landlords and a systemic failure across the city of Oakland to identify and routinely inspect buildings vulnerable to these tragedies. From then on, the victims of the fire—artists, college students, bartenders, lovers, and DJs in their 20s and 30s—became my reporting assignment, etching themselves into my memory and challenging me in ways I had never been challenged as a young reporter.
More than 100 young people flocked to the Ghost Ship warehouse on the night of Dec. 2, 2016, for an electronic dance party in the eclectic 1930s-era live-work art collective. The maze-like structure was packed with antiques and vintage art pieces, leaving partygoers on the second floor trapped and screaming for help when the fire broke out, unable to find their way down a narrow staircase made of wooden pallets and plywood. As the fire engulfed the structure, the curdled screams of victims could be heard from outside, begging for help. All of the victims died of smoke inhalation, according to the Alameda County Coroner’s Bureau.
Some neighbors were still waking up to the news by the time I got on scene early Sunday. Three blue, heart-shaped balloons spelled out “OAK♥LAND,” while dozens of posters, prayer candles, and flowers filled every corner of the block. Survivors returned to the scene to make sense of the darkest hours of their lives and to mourn the friends they had lost. Grief counselors stood by, some with therapy dogs, anxious to help those affected. As the magnitude of this tragedy sunk in, the pit in my stomach grew larger. The victims had hopes and dreams and were simply chasing happiness and fun on the day they died. What was the difference between them and me? Only the fact that they chose to attend the party.
By about midday Sunday, I was staking out the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department with a string of other local reporters. Family members were being summoned to be given the most horrible news possible—that their loved ones perished in the fire. This was, perhaps, one of the most grueling tasks of my coverage, though of course it paled in comparison to the wrenching emotions these family members had to grapple with. I paced at the entrance to the sheriff’s department, waiting to approach any grieving family members in hopes that they would stop and talk to media. None wanted to talk. Some emerged with red eyes and tear-stained faces, their footsteps quick and their eyes downcast.
In the week that followed, three colleagues and I were tasked with writing profiles of each of the victims. Over the course of several days, the coroner’s office would release the names of the deceased in small clusters. The minute we received a new batch of names, my colleagues and I would split the list and scramble to find whatever we could about the people who had died—social media posts, potential family members or friends, employers, their whereabouts on the day of the fire, and potential connections to other victims, of which there were many. We wanted to have at least a small story for every victim. We wanted the public to know them, to see their faces, to appreciate the contours of their lives. As the days went on, we reached more relatives and friends, and those stories got bigger and more meaningful.
Jennifer Mendiola was described by friends as a fierce, adventurous woman. She was earning her Ph.D. in psychology at UC Merced. On the day of the party, she had moved in with her new boyfriend, electronic music artist Micah Danemayer, who was set to perform that night. Micah also died in the fire.
Twenty-one-year-old Vanessa Plotkin was a junior at UC Berkeley, where she was majoring in sociology, volunteered at the campus radio station, and was a student employee at the information desk of the Berkeley libraries. She died alongside her roommate, friend and fellow Berkeley student Jennifer Morris, 21. Vanessa left behind a twin sister, Victoria.
Michela Gregory and her longtime boyfriend Alex Vega had gone to the party to have a good time. She enjoyed the music. The young couple died in each other’s arms.
Since the fire, there has been, understandably, great interest surrounding our coverage. People are often curious about how my colleagues and I dealt with the emotional toll of reporting on the victims, and how, in particular, I approached loved ones for interviews. There is no simple answer to that. Reporters will inevitably grow and evolve through the years, will learn to ask the right questions and say the right things to a grieving mother or a significant other. But beneath the surface it never gets easier. Such was the case for me as I made calls and sent out email blasts and social media messages looking for loved ones of the victims, hoping for an interview. I would keep it together during those long shifts but would go home and agonize over their faces, their stories. At times I cried, overcome with shock and emotion for the lives that were lost.
These are human stories that deserve to be told: of lives, not only of deaths. In many ways, I realized, I had been preparing myself for this since I started my career in the Coachella Valley as a reporter for the Desert Sun.
I am from the Bay Area originally—Daly City. At Santa Clara I earned a degree in English with minors in communications and Spanish. Classes and work on the student newspaper gave me a taste of what journalism might be, and that took me to Columbia University for a master’s in journalism. And that has led me back home.
Since I started my professional career as a journalist in 2012, I’ve felt the pull of social justice stories that give voice to the struggles of people and communities on the margins of society. That has meant my work has been about telling stories of immigrants and refugees; multicultural communities; tales of poverty; issues facing LGBTQ people in California; and coming to grips with how race and demographics shape who we are. There are matters of policy to understand and distill for readers. But on a fundamentally human level, these are stories charged with emotion and shot through with strife—and, I hope, speaking of resilience.
Three years ago I met Angel Osuna, an up-and-coming boxer from Culiacán, Mexico, who had pinned all his hopes—his American Dream—on going pro. He was, to coin a phrase, a contender. At just 26, Osuna had caught the eye of local boxing professionals and was just one bout away from signing a coveted contract with Golden Boy Promotions. It was during that match that Osuna suffered a traumatic brain injury following a series of brutal punches. He went into a coma for several weeks. After waking, he had lost his memory, his mobility, and his ability to read and write. He has never boxed again.
Though he eventually regained his ability to walk and talk, Osuna never got his memory back. He has no recollection of the fact that he was once a talented boxer. Without boxing, he remained an impoverished undocumented immigrant. His job options were slim. Meanwhile, his family faced more than $1 million in mounting medical bills. And so the man who dominated his opponents inside the boxing ring found himself sitting at home on most days, learning basic math and English from children’s workbooks, and watching TV to pass the time.
Osuna’s fate was a tough reality for me to face, especially as a young reporter so close to him in age. The accident of birth gave us very different beginnings. But it was like we were on parallel tracks.
A few months later I traveled to a women’s shelter on the Mexican border, in the city of Calexico, population 38,000. There, my photographer and I interviewed two young mothers who had fled Honduras with three young children during the height of the Central American migrant crisis. In 2014, thousands of undocumented immigrants rushed north to the United States to escape gang violence, dire economic conditions in their countries, and their own extreme poverty. Yina and Wendy fled the capital of Tegucigalpa and made their way north to the Rio Grande and into south Texas. “My longing to get to my destination was so great that I crossed the river on foot,” said Wendy.
Later in San Diego as an immigration reporter for the Union-Tribune, I found myself in the infamous “Bunker” in Tijuana, surrounded by mothers and U.S. military veterans who had been deported and had left behind their U.S.-born children. It’s where Iraq War veteran Daniel Torres found a tight-knit support system. Daniel joined the Marines in 2007 using a false birth certificate. He was outed as an undocumented immigrant after a trip to the DMV to replace a lost identification card. The DMV alerted Daniel’s superiors, who honorably discharged him. In 2011, Daniel chose to voluntarily return to Tijuana, where he was born. There, he found dozens of veterans who had been deported after serving in the U.S. military, largely for committing small crimes; Torres does not have a criminal record. Many of these veterans believed, mistakenly, that their service would instantly make them U.S. citizens. Last year, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Daniel was sworn in as an American citizen, likely becoming the first undocumented immigrant to naturalize by way of his military service.
Here in the Bay Area where I grew up, my work has taken on new meaning since January. It is no secret that immigration and refugees have become a focal point of the Trump administration’s policies.
I watched in awe as hundreds flooded the international terminal at SFO in January to protest the Trump administration’s first travel ban, which attempted to bar refugees and visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries. Attorneys, activists, and families packed the terminal for hours on end, eventually staging a sit-in calling on airport officials to free several Middle Eastern passengers that were detained that day. It is a scene that will never leave me.
I’ll be frank: Many stories have left me angry, disappointed, or upset at the injustices I have seen. They have even left me broken and on the verge of tears. But it’s the resilience and the strength of the people I come across that has propelled me forward, certain that telling their stories serves a greater good. So, when I’m asked how I do this work—particularly, how I interview people who find themselves in tragic situations—I say one thing: It’s important for the people whose stories I am telling to see my humanity. It’s important for them to see that beyond the notebook or the laptop there is also a human being who genuinely cares for the people she writes about. That, to me, is the most essential element of being a reporter. They need to know that I’m not just interested in a money quote or juicy details—but in truly telling their story. That’s what gave me hope and focus during my Ghost Ship coverage and what continues to push me forward as a reporter.
TRUTH AND CONSEQUENCES
In spring 2017, the East Bay Times was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in breaking news coverage of the Ghost Ship fire. This included our victims’ coverage. I’m still trying to grasp the fact that I’m a small slice of a Pulitzer-winning team. In many ways it solidifies the incredible work that my colleagues and I poured into this tragic event, work that continues today. In the months following the fire, East Bay Times reporters—among them Thomas Peele, Matthias Gafni, David DeBolt, and Erin Baldassari—have produced unmatched investigative reports on the fallout of the fire. They uncovered a series of fatal missteps by the Oakland Fire Department and city officials in the months and even years preceding the tragedy. Their work continues to hold those involved accountable and to uncover the truth behind this senseless tragedy, one that in many ways could have—and should have—been avoided.
As I write this, legal proceedings are underway against Derick Almena, the master tenant of the Ghost Ship warehouse, who illegally rented out the space to dozens of artists desperate for housing—despite knowing that the building was uninhabitable and was filled with fire hazards; and against co-defendant Max Harris. They face 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter. Almena was expected to enter a plea September 27.
Thirty-six young people paid for this horrific tragedy with their lives. And while the aftermath of the fire carries on, I can hope that by giving voice to them, some small part of their legacies lives on in the stories we shaped. We owe them that much.
TATIANA SANCHEZ ’10 covers race and demographics for the Bay Area News Group. Follow her on Twitter @TatianaYSanchez.