A fire in an Oakland warehouse left at least 36 people dead and many more missing on Friday, December 2. Fire investigators have yet to determine the cause of the fire at 21st Avenue near International Boulevard, although they reported that most of the victims died of smoke inhalation. Nicknamed the “Ghost Ship,” the warehouse functioned as a living and working space for many artists in the Bay Area.
The majority of the victims in their twenties and thirties were attending an event at the “Ghost Ship” warehouse in Oakland when the fire broke out. Among them were countless people involved in the Oakland and Berkeley communities, including two UC Berkeley students and two recent Berkeley High School graduates. One of the BHS alumni, Jonathan Bernbaum, graduated in 2000.
During his time at BHS, Bernbaum was a committed journalist for the Jacket. “He was a passionate debater and a passionate journalist and was really hungry for the story,” said former BHS teacher Rick Ayers.
Ayers also explained how Bernbaum made his own way through the world. He went to film school but rejected a more traditional Hollywood path to pursue his personal work.
A funeral was held for Bernbaum on Sunday, December 11. Around three hundred people were in attendance, and many friends and family along with fellow artists spoke about Birnbaum’s unique and passionate attitude towards life.
At Lake Merritt, many people gathered to honor all the deceased for a vigil.
One attendee, Roman Rimer, is an artist and volunteer who was passing out flowers. “I came out tonight to show my support to those who are mourning because of this tragic event,” he said. As a transgender artist, Rimer spoke about the importance of places such as the Ghost Ship, many of which provide what he views as necessary facilities for artists of all backgrounds. “There needs to be more safe spaces for artists to live and do their work and more safe places for transgender people to live. Those at the vigil were from all walks of life, including many policemen, volunteers from the Red Cross, religious leaders, and a range of others.
In a speech to the crowd, Rabbi Dovid Labkowski of the Lakeshore Synagogue spoke of the importance of community in times of tragedy. “Stay strong, and we will get through this together,” he said.
Tex Allen, the co-founder of the “Hugs Across America” campaign, stood holding a “free hugs” sign. “The quickest way to heal from a tragedy like this is through human connection, and hugs are a universal way to connect with one another,” he said.
At the vigil, a group of people sat by the water and made boats out of wax paper. The activity was led by Enoca Mea, a friend of one of the victims. He explained the ritual, saying, “After Hiroshima, they folded paper cranes to commemorate the victims, so we are folding one for each person who died in the fire.”
Since the incident on Friday, questions have risen about the Oakland Fire Department’s policies and practices around fire safety inspection. According to a recent article from SFGate, the department only inspects eight thousand buildings a year, leaving two thousand unchecked. California law states that all buildings must be inspected for fire hazard. The situation has provoked public outrage, as many view it as avoidable had proper safety and fire prevention measures been taken.