Still reeling from the Oakland warehouse fire that claimed 36 lives — including five people with ties to UC Berkeley — the campus community gathered today for a solemn vigil at Zellerbach Hall intended, in the words of Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, “to mourn, remember and celebrate those whose absence we are only now beginning to confront and accept.”
As mourners streamed in from under a light rain falling on Lower Sproul Plaza, some paused in the lobby to leave words of remembrance on five posters, each bearing a photo of one of those lost in the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland’s Fruitvale district, where a party was being staged when the devastating blaze broke out Friday night.
In the background played a recording of electronic music performed by Cherushii, the professional name of Chelsea Dolan, 33, known to listeners of campus radio station KALX as a community volunteer DJ. In addition to Dolan, the campus toll included two students, juniors Vanessa Plotkin, 21, and Jennifer Morris, 20, roommates who also volunteered at the station, and two alumni who went to the party together: Griffin Sean Madden, 23, a 2015 graduate and an audience services associate at Cal Performances, and David Cline, 24, who graduated in May 2015 with degrees in computer science and cognitive science.
“In mythology, griffins were magical,” someone wrote on Madden’s poster. “So were you.”
Among those attending the hourlong service were friends, relatives, artists, musicians, co-workers and others who knew one or more of the victims, including contingents from KALX and Cal Performances, whose director, Matias Tarnopolsky, offered a brief tribute to Madden. Both of Plotkin’s parents spoke from the sparsely decorated stage — highlighted by an arrangement of white lilies, roses and chrysanthemums — as did her twin sister, Victoria, who had also known Morris from their days together as students at UC Santa Cruz.
“Vanessa passed in a fire on Dec. 2, 2016,” she said, “but Vanessa is still here. I can feel her everywhere.”
Valerie Plotkin, their mother, said she hadn’t been sure she could find the strength to speak today, “but I felt that I had to honor my daughter. I didn’t prepare anything. We had just moved her in in August and I didn’t expect to be coming back for this type of gathering.”
Vanessa “loved this campus,” she said. “I felt her presence and joy and spirit here. She loved it here. I could tell from the way she glowed when she came home, she was just happy… She belonged here.”
Mike Madden, Griffin’s father, evoked subdued laughter as he fondly recalled how his son, a double major in Slavic studies and philosophy, would come home on breaks and “want to have talks about the meaning of time.”
“I lost track of time during those talks, and maybe even fell asleep,” he said.
“In a very unexpected way, this has given us an opportunity to give back to the Cal community for what they’ve done for Cal students and alumni,” Madden added, “and how they’ve enriched our children to help them become phenomenal people in the world.”
“As a family,” he said, “we have no regrets. And we have no regrets for Griffin. He lived every moment of his life to the fullest.”
Michael Morris spoke of his daughter’s love of music and art, and her talent for “enjoying life.”
“She did so much to reach out to others to help them learn and grow into their potential,” he said. “There’s a part of our hearts that is missing today.”
When the vigil ended, attendees streamed back out into the rain, past the shrine to those who had touched their own hearts as relatives, friends and members of the UC Berkeley community. Between the posters were boxes of Kleenex.
“Jenny, thank you for bringing your light to the KALX family,” read one message. “This is surreal and a loss to the world. May you continue to share your warmth on us as you shine down from above.”
Counseling services are available at University Health Services.