Firefighters in Oakland, California knocked down part of the wall of the Ghost Ship warehouse, where a fire killed at least 36 people on Friday night. Investigators are still searching for more bodies, and officials had said an unstable wall was posing a safety hazard to those searching the structure, and hampering the search. AP
Firefighters in Oakland, California knocked down part of the wall of the Ghost Ship warehouse, where a fire killed at least 36 people on Friday night. Investigators are still searching for more bodies, and officials had said an unstable wall was posing a safety hazard to those searching the structure, and hampering the search. AP

Shawn Hubler

Deputy editorial page editor, columnist and editorial writer

Shawn Hubler

The Oakland warehouse fire was a parent’s worst fear

By Shawn Hubler

shubler@sacbee.com

December 05, 2016 06:26 PM

UPDATED December 06, 2016 08:03 AM

The message on 22-year-old Alex Vega’s Facebook page was so urgent that it almost lacked punctuation:

“hi everyone this is alex’s mom I want everyone to know that alex and michela are missing, they went to the rave last night in Oakland and have not come home please if you know something”

As of Monday, Vega and Michela Gregory, 20, of South San Francisco, remained unaccounted for.

Never miss a local story.

Sign up today for a free 30 day free trial of unlimited digital access.

“I am looking for my Daughter Ashlee Brumbach,” Tina Andersen-Foland wrote, tagging the page of a beautiful purple-haired girl in her 20s who, hours later, would, thank God, contact her terrified mother. “I don’t know if she went to this. If anyone on here knows her please message me back.”

“Oakland Party Fire,” Yrjo Timonen typed from Finland on Facebook at 12:57 a.m. Sunday. “If anybody has any info of my Hanna Henrikka Ruax. Please let me know.”

Then, at 3:29 a.m.: “My daughter is my daughter.” Then at 10:19 a.m.: “No words. Just a great sadness.”

And then, on Monday morning, with his blond child’s beautiful photo: “Dear my angel and my princess. Eternal longing and memory. Rest in peace my dear hanne.”

The warehouse blaze that so far has claimed 36 young lives in Oakland will no doubt be viewed in coming months from many perspectives. How could it have happened? Where was the code enforcement? How much did the Bay Area’s skyrocketing housing costs contribute? Whom should be held to account?

But so far, I can’t get past the parents. From the Alameda County sheriff’s deputy whose own teenage son perished to the father who begged reporters to “try to put yourself in our shoes” as he left the sheriff’s station, their perspective runs through every wrenching update, every stricken news conference. That raw anguish, so common to mass tragedy, so typically played out in private, has been thrust by social media in this case into the public’s very face.

Sign on to Facebook, and it’s all there: How it felt to turn on the news and wonder whether your grown child might have been there. How it felt to dial and text and get no answer. Even how, for the fortunate many, it felt to think, there but for the grace of God, when the news broke, because to be a parent of someone in his or her late teens or 20s is to develop a terrible awareness of risk.

Those young people who died could have been yours, or mine or anyone’s children.

They don’t tell you, when you have children, that risk now will be at the back of your mind forever, tugging on all the other emotions that go with sending someone you cherish into adulthood, riding on your love and hope and pride like a little weight.

Or that it will be familiar, that risk, because you will remember your own 20s, in Technicolor – the adventures, the parties, the near-misses, the experiments. The seductive strangers. The controlled substances. The fast cars. The squalid crash pads with the seedy couches.

Or that you will accept this because you know risk is part of how young people do the job of a person’s 20s, which is to find themselves.

You hope for the best because you know your kids, but that doesn’t change the fact that the landscape of young adulthood has always been fraught with danger.

The question in the case of this fire is: Did the older adults in Oakland let that landscape get too dangerous, let that risk go too far?

I think they did, given the safety measures at our modern disposal. Records show that the blight at that warehouse was known to the city. The founder of the Ghost Ship artists’ collective that operated it, Derek Ion Almena – a 46-year-old adult who had three of his own children – had a history of complaints and government run-ins.

Neighbors of the warehouse told The San Francisco Chronicle that they became so worried about the safety of Almena’s own young children in that building that they contacted county Child Protective Services last year, causing the kids to be sent for several months to live with relatives in Southern California. As soon as the county relented, the neighbors said, he took them back to the warehouse.

On the night of the fire, Almena and his family were among the fortunate, away from the building. When a TV crew caught them waiting for an elevator Monday at the Oakland Marriott City Center, Almena, his hair wrapped in a headscarf, like a pirate, said that the young people lost in the blaze “are my children, they’re my friends, they’re my family, they’re my loves, they’re my future.”

Then, like a teenager, he huffed: “What else do I have to say?”

Of course, the casualties were not his children. Not his family. They were the children of other people, the loved ones of other families, families whose heartbreak is so great that if it could, it would break the internet.

I hope that, as we delve into this awful fire, and seek to prevent the next one, the perspective of those left-behind loved ones will remain at the forefront. It isn’t enough to just talk about housing costs and code enforcement and the importance of the arts and who knew what and when they knew it.

Those young people who died could have been yours, or mine or anyone’s children. Nothing will change unless we remember who, exactly, was not saved by the grace of God from the worst fear of a parent, whose children, exactly, we have been putting at risk.

Shawn Hubler: 916-321-1646, @ShawnHubler