Oakland warehouse fire: Ceremony for first responders offers closure

"What kept all of us going was knowing that we were a support system for people whose lives, whose families, had been tragically torn apart by this incident"

By George Kelly and Katrina Cameron
East Bay Times

OAKLAND, Calif. — Ten days after the nation's most lethal fire in 13 years, lone bagpiper and Alameda County Sheriff's deputy Steve Kidwell led a slow procession of East Bay department chaplains and first responders from a nearby fire station to the site of the Ghost Ship warehouse.

As gray skies gave way to a chilly, cloudy evening, those responders' silences spoke as loudly as Kidwell's bagpipe as they walked from Oakland Fire Department Station No. 13 in the 1200 block of Derby Avenue to the former warehouse's site in the 1300 block of 31st Avenue.

Oakland Fire Department chaplain Jayson Landeza's invite drew Oakland firefighters, Oakland police officers and Alameda County sheriff's deputies, as well as Bay Area Red Cross volunteers. Landeza said the idea for Monday's gathering came from Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives special agent Jill Snyder.

In the wake of the recovery effort's conclusion early Friday, it was easy to see responders' presence as one more measure of acknowledgement, respect and care, from the public reading of Psalm 23 in front of the gutted warehouse where the smell of smoke still lingered, to the chilling peals of a bell rung by Oakland firefighter Dan Robinson once for each of the fire's 36 victims.

A moment of silence followed, and the ceremony closed with Oakland police Officer Marco Marquez's prayer for victims, families and first responders.

Days of 24-hour shifts saw many firefighters, police officers, sheriff's deputies and other investigators offer labor, attention, energy and encouragement. As the scope and scale of the tragedy became apparent, those responders bore down diligently, tamping down on emotions as they dug for clues and sifted through wreckage.

"The first responders -- the police, the fire, the EMS, Red Cross and other members of our community -- were out here for multiple days in the recovery effort. And physically and emotionally, it's demanding and exhausting," Oakland fire Battalion Chief Nick Luby said.

"I guarantee you that plenty of people went home and had to decompress. I know personally there's a lot of tears shed on the first-responder side of just dealing with the devastation and the fact that 36 people's lives were lost and that 36 families are grieving, and that is what everyone's thinking about when they're in there doing the recovery effort," Luby said.

Luby then reflected on those shifts' main purpose: "I can assure everyone as being part of the recovery effort that every victim (being) recovered in a dignified and respectful way was our No. 1 priority."

Alameda County Sheriff's Chaplain Ed Moore told members of the media gathered at the site Monday that service was the guiding focus that helped first responders handle the recovery effort. "This was an incredible tragedy, and people were just completely shocked," Moore said.

"So our role is to provide whatever was necessary to help them move forward and, in many cases, to receive the news their loved one had been found."

When asked how he personally was coping with the tragedy's wake, Moore paused thoughtfully before reflecting on the vigil.

"There's an amazing satisfaction in just being able to help people when they really, desperately need help," he said. "And so, on the one hand, it's heartbreaking to hear all of this and to see what happened. And yet what kept us going, what kept all of us going, was knowing that we were a support system for people whose lives, whose families, had been tragically torn apart by this incident.

"As intended, it does provide closure to just realize that we were all a part of this. It was no one person. We all worked together to be able to see in the big picture all of us that were involved. This is satisfying to see that this many people came together, worked well in providing that comfort and care that these families needed during this tragic incident."

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