Firefighter copes with grief, tragedy after Oakland warehouse fire

OAKLAND (KTVU) -- A firefighter who helped pull bodies out of the rubble of the Ghost Ship warehouse over a month ago is speaking out about how the blaze has affected him.

East Bay Incident Management Team Lt. Mark Tait helped remove the last 10 bodies from the warehouse, including two victims who were found to be embracing when they died in the late night blaze on Dec. 2. The fire ultimately claimed 36 victims, many of whom were attending a late-night rave at the warehouse in the city's Fruitvale District.

And new pictures from the ground floor indicate why it was so difficult for many of the victims to escape the inferno.

'Tough Day'

Tait arrived at the warehouse on Sunday morning, the day after the fire, and would not return home for three days.

"I walked in and getting into the building was literally a maze," said Tait, adding that there were so much clutter -- things like pianos and other instruments -- that made it difficult to clear passable walkways.

"As I made my way in, I was greed (by) the body of victim No. 26," he recalls. "Nobody should ever be able to see even one victim (and) that night I saw 10. So, I have to turn something off inside of me. But it still affects me."

He said the most difficult moment for rescue workers was when they found Alex Vega and Michela Gregory in a pose that indicated Alex had his arms wrapped around her and was tightly holding his girlfriend when they died.

The two were on a couch on the second floor when the floor collapsed underneath them. The couch dropped and rolled over before crashing on top of an RV that was parked inside the warehouse. Firefighters used power tools to cut into the vehicle and when they turned over the couch that's when they found the two bodies.

"It's almost looked like they knew they were going to die and so he was embracing her," Tait said. "For some weird reason, my mind goes right to my wife if we were in that situation (because) I would protect her to the very end . . . and that's what he was doing."

Tait recalls another moment when he walked into a room and was horrified by the sight of arms and hands protruding from the darkness. 

"I saw four hands and my heart stopped and I called in the coroner and we went in there and they were mannequin hands," Tait said.

Many of the victims survived the blaze and were recognizable despite early fears that crews would be unable to identify many of the victims.

"That was the tough part (by) recognizing that this was someone's loved one and then going home and watching the news and seeing the faces of the victims that we just removed," Tait said. "That was very hard."

All work would stop when the body of a victim was found because crews wanted to do so in a manner that was very respectful for the families.

Firefighters worked in three-hour shifts because of the mental and physical strain. Rescue workers say one of the hard things now is remembering what they saw while they were inside the site.

"There was a (victim) who had an article of clothing on and about a week later I was in San Francisco and I saw that article of clothing on a woman," Tait said, speaking about that emotional trigger. "My hands started sweating and my heart started racing. I just had to get out of there."

Tait recalls that bright moments were few and far between as crews worked to clear the debris and identify victims. One of those moments is captured in a photo of him with three comfort dogs.

"It was just a nice moment," he said. "Almost like you're in another world."

Although first responders are thought of as the ones who run toward danger, they are also human and being inside the warehouse and extricating 36 bodies took a toll. Tait says talking about the ordeal serves as a coping mechanism to help him deal with the tragedy.

"I wish this never happened," he said. "I'm so sorry."


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