‘Ghost Ship’ journalists speak at UC Berkeley as anniversary of tragedy approaches

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Audrey McNamara/File

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As the anniversary of the “Ghost Ship” fire approaches, two local journalists who received a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on the tragedy spoke at UC Berkeley on Friday.

The journalists, Julia Prodis Sulek and Matthias Gafni, wrote a piece titled “The last hours of Oakland’s Ghost Ship warehouse” for the East Bay Times. At the campus event, the two shed light on their journalistic processes as well as the fire’s implications with regard to real estate and gentrification.

The Q&A was an open lecture for a UC Berkeley art history seminar titled “From SFMOMA to the Ghost Ship: Exploring Bay Area Arts Ecosystems.” According to the seminar’s professor, Jon Winet, the class investigates local and national pressures that affect the Bay Area’s art scene. Winet said he had envisioned hosting these speakers since he conceptualized the class last year.

“I thought they managed the event in a really elegant, interesting way,” Winet said.

Gafni recounted his experiences reporting on the ground the morning after the fire occurred. He described looking at the still-smoking building, holding an impromptu press conference with the fire chief to find out the number of fatalities and traveling to the sheriff’s substation to speak with survivors and victims’ family members. In particular, Gafni emphasized the balancing act between obtaining information and leaving those affected by the fire the space to grieve.

“As journalists, one of the worst jobs we have is approaching the family and friends of victims,” Gafni said during the Q&A. “You feel like a total vulture.”

Sulek detailed the technical aspects of writing her award-winning story. She said one of the reasons the story was so powerful was because she and Gafni were able to obtain information quickly. She contrasted the Ghost Ship fire with the Santa Rosa fires, for which journalists had to wait longer for updates.

The conversation then shifted to the fire’s implications for building inspection practices and gentrification. When asked about the national effects of the fire, Gafni revealed that the city of Los Angeles has revised its entire inspection program. He also mentioned that efforts to improve building conditions have led to the displacement of residents.

Sulek also said the Ghost Ship fire and other similar crises have led the Bay Area News Group, of which the East Bay Times is a part, to employ multiple staff members whose sole focus is the housing crisis. Sulek told the audience that these changes will hopefully help hold powerful bodies accountable for their actions.

The event allowed students to share perspectives on the Ghost Ship fire. Brianna Bohnett, a campus senior majoring in American Studies, said that after the Ghost Ship fire and its ensuing media coverage, the Bay Area has seen a shutdown of alternative artist communities.

“As someone who has lived these communities, lived the wonder, it’s hard to see how one experience has created tragedy for people who are actually trying to live in a good, healthy, different way,” Bohnett said during the Q&A. She emphasized the importance of conversations that will allow artists to continue to live these lifestyles, such as the rewriting of building codes.

According to Gafni, an East Bay Times story about the anniversary of the fire is forthcoming. It will likely analyze Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf’s progress on the promises she made after the fire, as well as ongoing lawsuits.

“It’s been a wild ride,” Gafni said.

Rachael Cornejo covers crime and courts. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @RachaelCornejo.