The Oakland “Ghost Ship” fire claimed so many, so senselessly. The most recent count pegs the death toll at 36 with an expected toll of “under 50,” a ghastly figure.
But for Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, they lost lives from their community twice over.
Draven McGill, a 17-year-old vocal department student, died in the fire on Friday night.
Johnny Igaz, a local DJ who performed under the name “Nackt,” graduated from SOTA in 1999. Igaz is still among the missing, though his family fears he is gone.
Draven and Johnny were separated by 17 years of life, but before McGill’s death, the two were likely enjoying the same music, together.
Students created a memorial to Draven on Monday on the top floor of SOTA’s foggy Twin Peaks campus. Note cards from students hung on strings like an art project.
“I’ll think of you when I sing,” read one note. Another mentioned his “calming presence and kind heart.”
Other notes bore the hallmarks of grieving teenagers. “I’m sorry we never resolved our sexual tensions,” read one note, while another said they’d remember when “we wanted to get matching ‘filthy frank’ shirts.”
Two who suffered losses in the fire walked SOTA in search of healing.
The first was Draven’s classmate, Faelan Westhead, who was also at Ghost Ship.
In SOTA, students join departments for four years. Every day after lunch, you are a part of something more than a school — you’re part of a group of like-minded creatives. And as a former SOTA student myself (Class of ’04), I can tell you that group of artists becomes your family.
Faelan sought out his SOTA family on Monday, said Monina Sen Cervone, head of the World Music and Dance department.
Faelan and other students formed a circle to share their feelings. The students were torn between emotions: Devastation at the loss of Draven, and gratitude for Westhead’s survival.
Faelan described the harrowing encounter to his classmates, Sen Cervone said. As the building burned, Faelan dived out off of the second floor to survive.
“He thought he made the wrong decision,” she said, as he was trapped on the first floor. “He could not see or breath. He thought he was going to die.” But he followed a man’s voice and survived.
In class, Faelan then played his two favorite taiko drum pieces with the students.
Sen Cervone said the performance was powerful and raw. The students screamed in support of Faelan when his drum solo came on. “He was smiling,” she said.
Faelan may still be in shock, Sen Cervone said, but art may help his wounds.
Just outside the bungalow to the World Music section, students could be seen running and laughing down the hallway. Other students spontaneously held each other in their arms.
At about noon, a student-read announcement reminded juniors that tomorrow is a mandatory field trip to a college fair. Then, the announcer called for a moment of silence for Draven …
One floor below Draven’s memorial, Paul Igaz sought his own solace.
A video production teacher in an Alameda high school and a SOTA alum, Paul fears his brother Johnny was likely lost in the Ghost Ship fire.
Paul visited his old teacher, Heather Woodward, who had taught Johnny as well. But on his way, he stopped by to visit his old media department teachers, Salome Milstead and Scott Eberhardt.
Paul was also my classmate. Media had moved floors since we were students, but there was a sense of the familiar as the decade-old posters we remembered hung around us.
“I first heard while the fire was still burning,” Paul said of his brother’s attendance at Ghost Ship. “If you knew my brother and knew he was at this fire, you know he’d be the last person out.”
Paul had no doubt Johnny died trying to ensure everyone who could made it out safely.
Though Johnny became a DJ of renown in the Bay Area and worked at Pandora for nine years, he didn’t start so successfully.
“He bombed his first two years of high school,” Paul said. But when Johnny came to SOTA, he was in his element.
Johnny excelled. His success also paved the way at the school for Paul.
“I’d show up and they’d say, ‘Oh, another Igaz,’” in a loving way, Paul said.
Johnny carried that sense of community he found at SOTA into his professional life, Paul said, where Johnny concentrated on bolstering local artists and took pride in booking diverse DJs for shows.
Even now, countless Bay Area DJs and musicians are writing an outpouring of love for Johnny on Facebook and elsewhere, noting his encyclopedic knowledge of music of all genres.
Paul will need time for healing, but his fellow SOTA alumni are already planning to bring him and his family comfort food and support.
As I left SOTA, a low baritone horn played a slow tune from, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” an otherwise silly film. “Pure Imagination.”
It seemed to sum up the cacophony and beauty of art and loss, as felt in a place as special as School of the Arts.
“There is no, life I know, to compare with full imagination. So go there, to be free, if you truly wish to be.”
On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at Facebook.com/FitztheReporter.