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.