As soon as the flames were doused on an Oakland, California, warehouse known as the Ghost Ship two things were clear: The death toll would be huge, and telling the story would be complicated. Though zoned only for commercial purposes, the Ghost Ship was illegally converted into a home for artists and the building itself had been a work of art, filled with antiques, paintings, tapestries and knickknacks.
The transformation was largely the work of a mysterious man named Derick Ion Almena, who ran the operation apparently without the building owner’s knowledge. When the fire broke out, the Ghost Ship was the scene of an electronic music party and the 36 who died were trapped upstairs by rickety staircases and no clear exits.
It took a cross-format team effort to tell the story and the staff in Northern California rose to the occasion. All the reporters in the San Francisco bureau -- Paul Elias, Sudhin Thanawala, Jocelyn Gecker, Ellen Knickmeyer, Kristin Bender, Olga Rodriguez and Janie Har -- had at least one byline in the first four days of the story. They were reinforced by Brian Melley from Los Angeles, Brian Skoloff from Phoenix and JJ Cooper from Sacramento.
Juliet Williams removed the title of “incoming” San Francisco news editor, dashing to the bureau from Sacramento to run the story. Photographer Marcio Sanchez and videographers Terry Chea and Skoloff provided heart-wrenching visuals from the scene. Scott Smith in Fresno and the Southern California staff provided invaluable help from afar, with Julie Watson in San Diego overseeing the herculean effort of providing vignettes on the 36 victims.
AP’s coverage kept a rapt audience updated on breaking news while explaining the complicated dynamics of the Ghost Ship.
There was intense interest in the story -- it was at the top story on AP mobile for four days -- and AP’s coverage kept a rapt audience updated on breaking news while explaining the complicated dynamics of the Ghost Ship.
Cooper provided the most revealing early look at the Ghost Ship and its eccentric captain, Almena, contacting several people on Facebook who were posting critical comments to Almena’s page. One, a former Ghost Ship resident, provided a lengthy interview, along with video and photos from inside. She also agreed to go on camera with AP and put Cooper in touch with a woman who was friends with Almena and his family.
Knickmeyer noticed artists tweeting about the tragedy, friended one on Facebook and asked her for help finding people affiliated with the Ghost Ship. The urged Almena’s father-in-law to talk to Ellen, and he provided information that allowed Ellen to write the most comprehensive early profile of Almena, with an assist from Tim Reiterman.
On the third day, with the death toll at 36 and rumors swirling of more bodies still to be found, the Alameda County sheriff appeared at a news conference and provided a convoluted, confusing explanation of the status of the search. Elias pulled the sheriff aside after the newser and pressed for clarity. He got it. The sheriff said officials “don’t believe” the death toll would rise beyond 36. AP’s alert moved a short time later and a frenzied media throng demanded the sheriff talk to them. He didn’t, and AP was alone with the news
In any tragedy, ensuring the victims are known by more than a name and age is critical. Watson drove a team of reporters from across the West with the adroitness of a battlefield general – albeit with a much friendlier tone – and had 18 vignettes by the third day and all 36 by the end of the week, many with photos as a result of LA-based photo editor Reed Saxon’s efforts.
For their standout work, Cooper, Knickmeyer, Elias and Watson share this week's $300 Best of the States prize.