Oakland warehouse fire impacts Alameda coroner worker

OAKLAND (KTVU) -- As friends and family continue to grieve over the 36 people who died in the fire at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland's Fruitvale District, an Alameda County worker offers a unique perspective on the tragedy.

Victoria Gebelein has worked with the Alameda sheriff's department for 10 years. She is providing an inside look at what the county coroner did to help victim's families as investigators sought clues and worked to identify victims.

"I wanted people to know how hard the people of this office worked to help the families and the victims of this fire," said Gebelein, who was called into work the morning after the fire broke out around 11:30 p.m. on Dec. 2. 

The investigation prompted the start of 15-hour days for her and others in the bureau. Gebelein's job was talking to families who wanted answers.

"The hardest ones were mothers and fathers asking if they'd be able to see their sons and daughters at a memorial," she said, adding that she could not provide an answer. 

But there was something she could do.

"We didn't know what to do except sit there on the phone and just listen to them," Gebelein said. "I had a lot of parents tell me stories about their sons and daughters." 

A team of doctors with the help of assistants and volunteers performed autopsies in the county's morgue. Gebelein says they worked with the utmost care and precision. 

"The way everybody worked together was amazing," she said, adding that most victims died from smoke inhalation. Those who perished were identified through their fingerprints.

"I was heartbroken every time they'd read off a name," Gebelein said. "My heart broke."

Many of the victims had identification on them and their relatives provided information that also helped to identify those who died. "We didn't want anybody to have to worry longer than they should have," Gebelein said.      

In a typical day, the Alameda coroner performs 4-6 autopsies a day. On the Monday following the fire, the staff had to perform 20 of them.

For Gebelein, who is 31 years old, the tragedy at the warehouse struck close to home because many of the victims were also in their 30s. 

"I just think it was unfair the way that it happened," she said. "They were all so young (and) they had family members and friends who loved them."

The task of issuing 36 death certificates falls to Gebelein, who is also helping coordinate the effort to return the victims' belongings to their families. 

By KTVU reporter Amber Lee. 

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