Life After the Ghost Ship

Those closest to the people who died in the tragic warehouse fire are still negotiating a way forward.


Photo by Ariel Nava

Seung Lee still starts shaking sometimes when he rides BART through Fruitvale Station. Madeline Kenney does a double take when she sees her friend Edmund’s jacket still hanging on a coatrack in her apartment. Carmen Brito is always looking for a hair clip, a file folder, something missing. “When you lose everything,” she explained, “you are constantly reaching for things that are no longer there.”

It’s been more than three months after fire ripped through a Fruitvale warehouse known as the Ghost Ship, killing 36 young people and thrusting Oakland once again into the national spotlight, once again for tragic reasons. It’s been more than two since the news vans stopped parking outside the building’s husk, near the corner of 31st Avenue and East 13th Street. The makeshift memorials have been packed up, put away, washed away by winter rains; the benefit shows and internet fundraisers and potluck funerals have petered out. Little by little, people are starting to go out to parties again, even if they’re keeping an eye on the exits the whole time. And those closest to the Ghost Ship are still negotiating a fragile, hard-fought way forward.

“It still comes up,” said Lee, who was at the Ghost Ship the night of the fire but mercifully stepped out to a corner store right before it started. “It comes up all the time.” He recently went to a bar trivia night, and “the guy there was like, ‘Don’t block the hallway; we don’t want another Ghost Ship.’” He paused. “There’s no way he would have known I was there. But it happens all the time.”

Kenney, a musician, lost several friends in the fire. “They were all creators, which means you see their [art] everywhere,” she said. “That’s really sad, but it’s also kind of magical. You want to strike that balance, between moving on and continuing to make and love and create, and continuing to honor these people.”

Often, that means correcting the record: “This was not about drugs, and it was not about partying,” she said. “I feel like I always have to say that.”

Photo by Ariel Nava

For others, it’s getting involved. “We’ve been thrust into this position we weren’t in before,” said Jonah Strauss of the Oakland Warehouse Coalition over a veggie burger and a beer at Eli’s Mile High Club, a Longfellow bar that, in the days after the fire, became a gathering space for survivors. In the time since the fire, many of those closest to it have argued that the city’s housing crisis is to blame for the fact that many of its residents have been forced to the fringe, living and partying in quasi-legal spaces like the Ghost Ship; according to Strauss, “the community has come together in unprecedented ways” to agitate for changes to a host of local laws and systems, including the party permitting process, rent control, and affordable housing, as a means of protecting the city’s ever-impacted artist class—“the people who make your lattes and buy your groceries and flip your burgers and make your art,” in the words of one survivor of the fire, who asked not to be named.

“Artists are the canary in the coal mine,” said Brito, a 29-year-old substitute teacher who lost her home when Ghost Ship went up in flames. “Six or seven people from the warehouse have already left the Bay Area after this. If people who are already  at the fringes can no longer survive here, what does that mean for everybody else? The Bay Area has a lot of people who like to talk about art, but not that many who like to make art.”

In February, activists logged a small victory when the Oakland City Council formally declared Dec. 2 of every year a “Ghost Ship Remembrance Day.” Meanwhile, the Oakland Fire Department and ATF are working on a comprehensive investigation into the fire.

And sometimes, moving on just means performing the quiet work of any kind of grief, the gradual rearranging that happens after a loss. “I’ve been trying to teach myself to forget,” said Lee.

“My day-to-day life has mostly gone back to normal, but it took a lot of effort to do that,” said Brito. “People ask me, ‘Are there days when you don’t think about it?’ No. You think about it every day. What was once my home became a site of this tragedy. That comes back to me every single morning.” 


Published online on April 5, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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