The Ghost Ship Fire

Image: A woman grieving, black and white. Photo by unsplash/pixabay.

The first I knew about it was when my phone rang by my bed. It was my ex-father-in-law and still dear family, Jim Scott, asking if I’d heard from “the boys.” My sons are in their 30’s, but to some folks they’ll always be “the boys.” No, I hadn’t… why?

Friday night there was a terrible fire in Oakland’s Fruitvale district. I had heard about it on the radio before I went to sleep, described as a “warehouse fire.” I hadn’t thought much about it. By morning the building was being described as an artist collective, and there had been a party there, then a fire with many, many casualties.

“I am sure they weren’t there,” I said, on automatic pilot. “I’ll get back to you.” I phoned the elder son, the artist, and he was slow to answer (not a morning person – but neither am I.) He works in an artist collective, but in another part of town, and my mama-instinct told me he hadn’t been there, but we needed to hear his voice. He answered, thank God.  I ascertained that he was alive, and told him to call his granddad immediately.

I texted his brother the musician, and yes, he was fine. I told him to get in touch with Granddad. Then I began thinking about all the mothers and grandfathers and friends everywhere hearing about that fire. I looked on Twitter for news.

People, when something like this happens, remember that survivors and friends are combing social media and the news, hoping for information. Out of human decency, please DON’T:

ANALYZE the situation based on little information, and PLACE BLAME.

BLAME the victims for being foolish. (The things I saw used ruder words.)

MAKE JOKES. (I can’t believe I need to say that.)

SPEAK HATEFULLY about groups to whom the victims might (or might not) belong (in this case, African Americans, Californians, liberals, Oaklanders.)

MAKE GHOULISH SPECULATIONS (Again, can’t believe I have to say that.)

As I write, on Sunday afternoon, they are still searching for bodies in the ashes. So far, all my sons’ friends are accounted for, but as Aaron said to me, friends of friends died in that fire. This was close to home.

Think carefully before posting anything but sympathy in the wake of a tragedy. Please. It is a mitzvah to comfort mourners, but surely it is one of the worst of sins to torture them.


This is a photo of my sons that I took about a year ago. Good guys, both of them.

Update, 12/4/16, 7:34pm, PST: At this writing 33 bodies have been recovered from the scene, and 7 of them identified. I know of two people whose families and friends await news; I hope I don’t learn of more. 

Update 12/6/16, 3:46 pm, PST: 36 bodies have been recovered, and 90% of the building has been searched. The Oakland Fire Dept does not expect to find more bodies. I know of one family who expects bad news; they are still waiting for identification of the remains. I know that this is no longer fresh news, but keep in mind that families are still waiting for identifications, no funerals have yet taken place, and the criminal investigations are just beginning. California Governor Jerry Brown set an example for all of us when he declined to speculate on causes this morning.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

10 thoughts on “The Ghost Ship Fire”

  1. I love this. Social media gives people a relative anonymity that liberates them to be the worst version of themselves, and glib about situations that are causing real people a lot of pain. It almost makes world news like a sort of video game or movie we’re all watching and providing witty commentary on. Like you mentioned, it’s sad that a post like this is even necessary. Good word!

  2. I am angry that these artists were pushed by high rents in our community into barely habitable unsafe places in order to do art. With the tragedy of the young lives lost and their creations that will never be, I mourn.

    1. My first reaction is to agree, Dianna. The shortage of affordable housing in the Bay Area puts many people, including artists, in substandard and unsafe housing.

      One very rational reaction for those of us who are not actively mourning loved ones is to work for better options for our artists.

    2. I’ve been saying exactly the same, Dianna. People who start out on the economic margins + what’s happened to the local housing market over the last few years = a lot of folks doing what they have to do and hoping everything will be ok.

  3. Watching the news reports about this horrifying event hurts my heart thinking about the families and friends who lost loved ones in this tragedy. I agree with you Rabbi Ruth, those who use social media to torture those grieving souls are true sinners. The only way to create Tikkun Olam is to love those who have lost, regardless of the reason their loved ones were in the Ghost Ship that night.

    1. Amen.

      Those young people were some of our best, and Oakland is grieving. It is a shame and a scandal that there wasn’t a safe venue for that gathering.

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