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placeholder September 18, 2017   •   VOL. 55, NO. 16   •   Oakland, CA
Red Cross honors Catholic chaplain as first responder

The American Red Cross of the East Bay has honored Rev. Jayson Landeza for his first-responder work at the scene of last December's Ghost Ship fire Oakland, in which 36 people died.

The award was one of six Alameda County Heroes Awards presented this month by the American Red Cross of the Bay Area. He was chosen for this award, according to the Red Cross, "for his 'ministry of presence' from the very beginning when a fire erupted at the Ghost Ship warehouse, which had been converted into an artist collective, in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland."

Rev. Jayson Landeza

The first-responder award generally goes to a police officer, firefighter or another emergency services provider.

"I was humbled by that," said Father Landeza, who in addition to serving as pastor of St. Benedict Parish in Oakland is chaplain to Oakland Fire and Police departments, as well as other agencies.

The award, he said, is not his alone.

"This award needs to go to those first responders who were there from the very moment of that fire and the work they did to not only make sure the victims in the Ghost Ship fire were cared for with dignity and respect, but that family and friends were also treated with a sense of compassion and respect.

"I was just one of many who were part of that process," he said.

Father Landeza was notified of the warehouse fire first alarm at 11:30 p.m. Dec. 2.

"On 35th near Fruitvale," he said. "A 10-minute drive" from his East Oakland rectory.

He arrived at the scene of what he believed to be a warehouse fire. "It struck me: Why were there a ton of people out front?

"Someone said there was a big dance party, that there were 50 to 100 people in there," he said.

"The people who came out came out on their own," he said. "They were sad. They weren't panicking."

"It became clear, from what I was able to see, Oakland Fire went defensive early on because they could not get in there because the fire was so intense," he said.

Early in the morning, friends and families came to the fire scene.

"One of the most heartbreaking," he said, "was parents showing up on scene, wondering where their children were. I knew no one could have survived that."

It was the beginning of a week and a half that Father Landeza would spend at the fire scene.

"I worked primarily with law enforcement and firefighters," he said. Later, he said, "the determination was made that some families wanted to go on scene."

The families were escorted to an observation area by Alameda County Sheriff's personnel. "I would be the one who would meet them on scene, answer questions and respond to requests they had."

The requests were humble — May we take a photo? May we leave flowers? Can you anoint the body? (He could bless from a distance.)

He learned much about those who had been celebrating at the warehouse that night,

"Here's a whole other community my eyes were opened to," he said. "Kids who had relocated here: smart, brilliant, creative, intelligent, well-educated, edgy in the best sense of the word, artistic," he said.

"Their parents and loved ones were tremendous people," he said. "I think of the parents I encountered that week. Your heart goes out to them," he said.

On Sunday morning, nine days after the fire began, Father Landeza found himself alone in what had been the Ghost Ship.

"Everything had been cleared out, a good portion of the evidence had been taken away," he said. He couldn't take a photo.

"I remember being alone that morning. The sun was shining. It was cold. In here was the deadliest U.S. fire since the Station Fire in Providence, Rhode Island, the deadliest fire in California since the 1906 earthquake.

"My God, this is all here in Oakland."

 
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