Oakland Warehouse Fire: A Survivor Shares What He Saw and How He Escaped
Singer-songwriter Ivan Mairesse recalls his "unsettling" experience.
We were there to see the music of Joel Shanahan. I had met Joel while attending college in Madison, Wis., and he was scheduled to perform under his Golden Donna moniker. I had never been to this particular house before, but it resembled co-ops and warehouse spaces I'd attended over the years as a young fan who supported DIY venues and experimental music.
I arrived to the show with a group of four friends at 10:30 p.m. In the main performance area on the second floor, a DJ was playing dance records in the very back of the room. We chatted with Joel for a few minutes as the crowd began to grow.
Around this time, two more friends joined our group. As we continued to dance and talk, anticipating the first act, a few of us noticed a trail of smoke coming up from the floorboards under our feet. One friend spoke up: "It smells like a firecracker, doesn't it?" In a mater of seconds, the amount of visible smoke increased and I looked up to see a clear sense of panic in several peoples' faces as they moved away from the dance floor. Sticking close by the two friends nearest to me, I followed our group toward the staircase.
However, once we reached the stairs, my body suddenly stopped moving. The smoke had spread through the second floor and the fumes were so powerful it became difficult to breathe or keep my eyes open. At the same time, the electricity went out, and the house went pitch-black. Now unable to inhale the air or see what was in front of me, I remained in a state of limbo, not sure if I could stay conscious for much longer.
Seconds later, I heard a voice from the lower level yelling: “You can breathe down here, you can breathe down here!” Sensing that those ahead of me had gotten down the stairs, I pushed myself forward and managed to stumble the rest of the way, pulling my friend's arm down with me. As my feet hit the ground floor, a sudden wave of cool air washed over me: I was out from underneath the cloud of black smoke and able to breathe again. After looking over my shoulder to make sure my friend was still conscious and next to me, I saw a glowing ball of orange to the right of me. I immediately turned away, following the footsteps in front of me the best that I could out of the house and into the street. My friend followed behind me, calling out his girlfriend's name. She had exited the house just prior to us. He knew that she was safe. In that moment, I looked at his face and saw the sense of relief that overtook him.
Once we had regrouped outside of the warehouse and were all safe, we collectively decided to get back to our respective homes and loved ones. On the train ride home, it was unsettling to be surrounded by strangers who weren't aware of what had just happened, yet could obviously smell the strong odor of smoke residue on my jacket and clothes. Walking home, I suddenly became deeply concerned about the magnitude of this fire, and simply hoped that the repercussions would not be worse than I believed based on what we had experienced. Upon reading the headlines the next morning, I was shaken up by the unbelievable and terrifying news that the aftermath was, in fact, far worse than I had imagined.
Ivan Mairesse is a Bay Area singer-songwriter who performs under the name Sagittaire.
This article originally appeared on Billboard.com.