Oakland first responders: It's 'an honor' to support grieving families

When a fire victim’s identity was confirmed, an official from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office broke the news to family members


By Jenna Lyons
San Francisco Chronicle

OAKLAND, Calif. — There were 36 bodies recovered from Oakland’s devastating warehouse fire, but the victim count is much higher.

Among the victims are the grief-stricken families of the artists, performers, and music lovers who perished at the building known as the Ghost Ship. Some relatives of the dead didn’t learn until Wednesday night, five days after the disaster, that their loved one was gone.

A woman walks past a makeshift memorial near the site of a warehouse fire Monday, Dec. 5, 2016, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
A woman walks past a makeshift memorial near the site of a warehouse fire Monday, Dec. 5, 2016, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Traditionally, officials show up at families’ front doors to give them news of a death. To prevent relatives from waiting longer than necessary, and provide additional services at one location, the majority of notifications in the Oakland fire took place at the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office family assistance center.

There, a small group was tasked with saying the words no one wants to hear.

“In my feeling, honestly, they had the toughest job,” said Alameda County Sheriff's Office spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly.

To perform death notifications for California’s deadliest structure blaze since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, it took a team of around five people.

Sgt. Lauren Tucker was one of those with that job, and she said “it was an honor.”

“This is not about us,” Tucker said Thursday. “It’s about us doing our job with compassion and empathy. This was all about us doing as best as we could for the victims and the families.”

Sgt. Oscar Perez, one of many on the peer support team, was in the room for several notifications and said the mood was always solemn.

“I was there to comfort families, provide information, hear stories about their loved ones and to listen to them, to let them know they were not alone,” Perez said. “Our hearts go out to the families. This was a team effort. This was a total team effort.”

The process was extensive. It began when families walked through the doors and signed in with their name, contact information, the name of the unaccounted for person, and their relationship to that person.

From there, they were surrounded by counselors, chaplains, a peer support team, and officials such as Tucker who would get to know the families and learn about their loved ones. Some families spent hours there. Others were in and out of the facility for several days.

When a fire victim’s identity was confirmed, an official from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office broke the news to family members while a chaplain, counselor, and members of a peer support team from the sheriff’s office were also on hand to provide comfort.

“We really got to know the family,” Tucker said. “We cried with them. It was ... it was difficult.”

Families had as much time as they needed for the notification process. Some spent 20 minutes in the room, some spent an hour. Some wanted to pray with chaplains, others began making calls to inform family members who weren’t present.

Afterward, they were ushered to another part of the building where victim advocates from the Alameda County district attorney’s office and Red Cross volunteers were on hand with additional disaster services.

The sheriff’s office had prepared for the worst. In the fire’s aftermath, calls poured in from worried relatives around the country, which gave the office an initial working list of 240 missing people, Kelly said.

The number soon narrowed considerably as some missing were deemed safe and first responders on the ground performed the painstaking process of recovery.

Saturday morning, they began searching for people by removing building debris with their hands so as not to damage bodies with heavy equipment, said Lt. Paul Liskey, an emergency manager for the Alameda County Sheriff, who coordinated much of the disaster recovery effort.

Lt. Miguel Ibarra, unit commander for the coroner’s bureau, was one of the boots on the ground during the search and recovery process.

“We go to every length, no matter how far, to notify family,” he said. “The number one person counting on you is the next of kin. You owe it to them to get them their loved one without delay.”

As staff worked to quickly identify bodies, family members came to the center with toothbrushes, hair brushes and other personal belongings that contained DNA to help in the identification process.

The objective was to do as many notifications in person as possible, Kelly said. In some cases, the office provided plane tickets to fly out-of-town family members to Oakland, “just to sit down and talk to them and get them what they needed.”

As families waited, responders felt it was their duty to give them the news as quickly as possible.

“It’s so hard delivering such terrible news. And at the same time, I think that some of the families got the relief of just knowing,” Tucker said. “It was agonizing for those families to sit there and not know.”

Copyright 2016 the San Francisco Chronicle

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