5-year anniversary of Ghost Ship tragedy continues to break families' hearts

On the five-year anniversary of Oakland's Ghost Ship warehouse fire, a heartbroken mother came to the site Thursday evening.

"It's a grief, it's a forever situation, it doesn't go away," said Emilie Grandchamps, whose son Alex Ghassan died with 35 others in the inferno on Dec. 2, 2016.

The fire started during a dance party at Fruitvale district warehouse which had been illegally converted into an event venue and living space.

Three dozen people died on the second floor when the flame and smoke of an electrical fire made it impossible for them to escape.  

"Our children were burned alive and suffocated and at times your imagination goes there, wondering what your child felt like," said Grandchamps.

In the days after the tragedy, hundreds of people attended vigils for the victims.

On the one-year mark, they flocked to the charred shell of the warehouse, determined that no one forget.     

On the five-year anniversary, just a handful of people lit candles on the sidewalk in the evening. 

Emilie Grandchamps knows some grieving families find no solace at the site, but she does. 

"I never got to see my son's body so in some ways this is his grave," she noted.

Ghassan, 35, was a director and filmmaker, who had moved from New Jersey to Oakland to be nearer his 4-year-old twin daughters from a previous relationship.

He was like so many who died that night: artists and musicians, creative and talented individuals, with so much to offer.

Their loved ones don't refer to them now as victims but "stars."   

"Each child, from every family, they were the glue, they were the special ones who held everyone together," said Grandchamps.

The families, she says, became close during a few years of tumultuous court proceedings as they fought for justice and accountability.

Grandchamps says the group remains in touch, creating their own zoom link to communicate. 

For the second year, the anniversary was also observed by the Voice of Silicon Valley choir, which held a virtual tribute on YouTube.

It included an hour of photography, musical performances and visual arts from the work of those who were lost.

Grandchamps' own path to healing has led her to follow her late son, moving from East Coast to West, and settling in the Bay Area.

At the time he died, she says Ghassan was in love, and his fiancée, designer Hanna Ruax, perished with him in the warehouse fire. 

"They were happy, they came here to have fun and they didn't know this was the last day of their lives."