Max Ohr may have had the most vivid — and horrifying — single view of the fire that seemingly exploded inside an Oakland warehouse on December 2, resulting in 36 occupants losing their lives. He was the unofficial building greeter that night, welcoming people as they entered the "Ghost Ship" art collective on 31st Avenue to participate in a late evening of music, dancing, and fun.
"At first I grabbed a fire extinguisher," Ohr, 26, says. "But it all happened so fast, within seconds it seemed. And I very quickly realized that the extinguisher wasn't going to do much good."
So Ohr stayed in or near the building for as many minutes as the flames permitted, trying to help others escape the inferno. He successfully helped some people out; others he was unable to save. "We just tried to get as many people out of the building as possible," he says. "But the flames came so fast..."
A resident of the building for close to two years prior to the fire, Ohr lost every personal possession that he had. The warehouse had been a place where he worked as a sculptor, jeweler, tatoo artist, and recording musician — and he was drawn to the building by the creativity that its residents fostered.
But in the wake of so much death and despair, Ohr isn't dwelling on his own personal losses, or even his next moves; his thoughts are focused on the 36 people who perished inside the building that night.
"I was one of the lucky ones," he says; "I'm physically fine." But he quietly says he doesn't expect to ever be the same. "The night of the fire is something that's going to be with me for the rest of my life."
In the fire's aftermath, Ohr has drawn strength from the kindness friends and strangers alike have shown him and other survivors.
He has developed a special soft spot for the volunteers from the American Red Cross who responded within hours of the blaze. "They were there to help us when we needed it most," he says.
Ohr doesn't know the woman's name, but he remembers the kindness he especially felt from one of the female volunteers. "She was so sweet; she really reminded me of my mother," he says.
"The Red Cross gave us some of the things that we needed most right then: a warm cup of coffee, food, and a place to gather," Ohr adds. "And in some cases, a place to gather just to cry a little. Everyone from my group would agree that the Red Cross was a nice emergency blanket."