Mourners Cry, Hug, Laugh & Scream at Memorial for Oakland Warehouse Fire Victims

 People look at a memorial near the site of a warehouse fire that has claimed the lives of at least thirty-six people on Dec. 5, 2016 in Oakland, Calif.
Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

People look at a memorial near the site of a warehouse fire that has claimed the lives of at least thirty-six people on Dec. 5, 2016 in Oakland, Calif.

Lee Davidson is a veteran of underground dance parties. Her friend Alex, a 35-year-old film producer and father of two, would tease her, saying, “Why the fuck are you into electronic music and these raves? What are you doing?”

Davidson urged him to try it “just once.”

Friday night, Alex Ghassan took his fiancé Hanna Ruax to one such party. Today, their names are listed among the 36 dead from the fire that engulfed the warehouse venue.

On a chilly Monday (Dec. 5) night on the shores of Lake Merritt in Downtown Oakland, Davidson and many more like her gathered for a candlelight vigil under a lakeside archway, the first large public grieving event since the Friday night tragedy.

Many, like Davidson, are struggling to make sense of a tragedy that defies sense. For two hours, a succession of speakers -- parents, friends, siblings, girlfriends, boyfriends, partners, and creative collaborators of the deceased -- stepped up to a microphone. People cried, laughed, asked for moments of silence, and called for the assembled crowd to howl for the dead.

The tragedy was so unexpected, so brutal, and still so raw that shock seemed to be the most common emotion Monday night. People cried, hugged and screamed. But mostly they stared into space, clutching glowsticks or candles.

One speaker got a negative reaction from the crowd, which numbered around 1,500. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf was booed and heckled. The Oakland Police Department under Schaaf has cracked down on underground venues and parties, and there is fear in the local DIY community that this tragedy will bring more evictions.

“Safety is also having a community where you feel safe to be yourself,” Schaff said at the memorial. “Whether that is trans, queer, artist, expressive -- that is how Oakland shows up.”

Larger, more contentious issues that have been brought to the forefront of the public's mind in the wake of the warehouse fire came up on Monday: namely, the housing crisis putting increasing strain on artists and musicians, pushing them into ever-more-unorthodox spaces. But the tone of the event was more memorial service than political rally. Other than the anger at Schaaf, speakers offered heartbreak, hope, and laughter.

A friend of Alex Ghassan and Hanna Ruax choked up as he spoke to his friend Alex.

“I just want to tell him right now, that ... I'm gonna look after your twins, man. My kids and your kids were best friends -- they still are -- and it's breaking my heart to have kids without their parents or their dad.”

A man, introducing himself as John Matlock, took the microphone standing next to his wife. He said they were there to remember their son Joey Matlock, better known to the underground community as Joey Casio, a musician originally from Portland who performed under the name Obsidian Blade.

“We’re hurting right now,” John Matlock said, “but we know that we're one part of his family and this community was another part of his family.”

Joey Casio was not the only musician remembered Monday night: Los Angeles-based music label 100% Silk lost two of its artists, Cherushii (Chelsea Faith Dolan) and Nackt (Johnny Igaz); Ben Runnels and Denalda Nicole Renae, both feared lost in the fire, made up the group Introflirt; Nex Iuguolo a.k.a. Brandon Chase Wittenauer, who performed with the band Symbiotix.Fungi; Feral Pines played bass; Cash Askew performed in the duo Them Are Us Too. Travis Hough performed with the group Ghost of Lightning.

The sister of Nex Iuguolo spoke, saying she has been meditating and feeling her brother’s presence keeping her going these past few days. She said she thought about what her brother would want to tell the world.

“Rock on,” she said to cheers. “Keep the music going. He wants everyone in the music community to keep on making music, everyone in the creative community to keep on creating. That was what was most valuable to him in life.”

Allen Antoine, a sound engineer by night, remembers when Ben Runnels was a solo act called Charlie Prowler. The addition of Denalda -- creating Introflirt -- just made the group better, he told the crowd. Antoine was on the soundboard at an event in Berkeley, Calif. the first time he saw Runnels perform. Onstage with a vintage SQ-80 keyboard that took floppy disks and a multichannel mixer, Runnels fed sound directly to Antoine at the soundboard.

“I'd never heard anything like it before,” Antoine said of Runnels’ sound, synth-wave with crooning vocals. “It just absolutely blew me away from the first second I heard it.”

Jello Biafra, longtime Bay Area musician who co-founded the Dead Kennedys in 1978, spoke at the vigil Monday night, calling the Ghost Ship fire “the worst tragedy of its kind that I know of.”

The Ghost Ship tragedy has already echoed through the underground music world. Christel South and Amy Raves of Los Angeles heard about the fire Saturday morning. That night, they attended the Winterfresh Music Festival, a rave in Los Angeles, where they collected money for Ghost Ship victims ($136) and gathered notes from Winterfresh attendees, which they displayed on signs at the Oakland memorial.

Amy Raves runs a group called Safer Raving, which focuses on personal responsibility and safety for ravers. She runs a booth at raves where she tests pills, and hands out water, Gatorade, earplugs, condoms, and literature on women’s health and rave safety. Safer Raving has “PLURR” volunteers which patrol raves, looking to ensure Peace, Love, Unity, Respect, & Responsibility.

But when asked if she’s been in unsafe party spaces, Amy Raves responds instantly, saying “absolutely, absolutely.” She tells of a promoter in L.A. who threw raves in the basement of a defunct shopping mall, with one entrance/exit leading to four large rooms. She and others noted at the time, Raves said, that if there had been a fire, many would be trapped.

The event at Ghost Ship on Friday wasn’t a rave, but a smaller-scale underground music party. The East Bay Express reports that about 60 people were inside when the fire started at about 11:20 p.m.

One of those who didn’t make it out was Edmond Lapine, reported by The Olympian to be good friends with Joey Casio.

A young woman spoke, said she had been dating Edmond Lapine for a couple months. She said Lapine’s “insight, emotional intelligence, and general intellect just enchanted the shit out of me.”

The crowd cheered as she explained how they met on OkCupid and she then blurted out “We had the best fucking sex! All the time. All the time.”

“He would have loved it so much that I just told you guys that,” she told the crowd, to general laughter.

People spoke for two hours, but the vigil could have gone on for much longer judging by the mass of people waiting behind the microphone. After the event ended at 10 p.m., clusters of people stood talking, smoking, or just staring.

Some kneeled in front of the makeshift memorials that popped up at Lake Merritt, collections of candles, photos, notes, flowers, and mementos. Others sat at the edge of the lake, looking out over the dark to the city lights in the distance.

Lee Davidson, friend of Alex Ghassan, talked about her homeland of Israel, where people sit shiva, staying in the mourning house for one week, accepting condolences. She said that since the Ghost Ship fire, she’d been looking for that sense of shared grief.

Monday night, one mourner out of many, Davidson found it.

“I received it in a larger form than I was expecting,” she said. “So I'm grateful.”

Additional reporting by Whitney Phaneuf.


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