The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘All we could do was stand there’: She watched Oakland’s inferno consume the one she loved the most

(Photo by Kristen Cofer/Courtesy Sunny Haire)

Anya Taylor was supposed to go to the party Friday night. She wanted to be by her girlfriend’s side, enjoying a night of electronic music with their fellow musician friends — the “bunch of beautiful, weird queers” they felt accepted them most.

But, realizing she had to work her job at a coffee shop early the following morning, Taylor decided not to go to the party. When her girlfriend, Cash Askew, didn’t respond to her texts that night, Taylor assumed she was having fun, dancing to the music. Then she saw the news online: A fire had erupted at an Oakland warehouse.

She rushed to the scene with other friends and, for four agonizing hours, silently watched the inferno rage, consuming the person she loved most.

“We knew our girls were in there,” Taylor said. “All we could do was stand there.”

Cash, the 22-year-old musician from Oakland, was one of at least 33 people who perished in Friday’s fire, which spread quickly in a collective of artist studios known as the Ghost Ship through the two-story warehouse, officials said Sunday. Local officials said it ranked as one of the deadliest structural fires in recent U.S. history.

On Sunday, the coroner’s office identified six other people killed in the fire. They included Travis Hough, 35, a creative arts therapist and a member of the band Ghosts of Lightning; Donna Kellogg, 32, a barista pursuing a degree in culinary arts; Sara Hoda, 30, a teacher at a Montessori school; and Brandon Chase Wittenauer, 32, an electronic music artist, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. There was Nick Gomez-Hall, 25, a “musical loving genius” who worked at a publisher based in Berkeley, and David Cline, 24, of Oakland, who loved to play the clarinet, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Among the dead was the son of a deputy with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, the agency in charge of recovering and examining bodies recovered from the fire, the Chronicle reported.

Residents of Oakland, Calif., started a small memorial of flowers and candles near the spot where a fire at a warehouse killed more than 30 people. (Video: Video: Reuters / Photo: AP)

The deaths struck at the heart of a flourishing community of artists united by the Bay Area’s underground electronic music scene. Not unlike the Pulse nightclub, where in June 49 people were killed by a gunman in Orlando, the Oakland warehouse had served as a safe space for members of the queer community, musicians who were “pushed out onto the margins,” friends who were “trying to scream and get someone to scream and hug them back,” Taylor said.

Bailey Skye, a Seattle-based musician who performed with Cash, said fellow members of the underground, queer community of artists often feel safer gathering in places like the warehouse than in mainstream bars or clubs, where they may be “oppressed or looked down upon.”

“We’re already struggling in so many other ways and we’re just trying to get by,” Skye said. “It’s almost at fault that we ignore some of these risks, but I think it’s hard to think about those things when you’re mainly thinking about creating a safe space.”

Taylor said these types of gathering spaces are essential for the queer and transgender community.

“We need to be celebrated with other people like us,” Taylor said. “That was our community. That was Cash.”

Growing up in the Bay Area, Cash was raised by a “very musical family, very artistic family, very queer family,” said her mother, Leisa Baird Askew.

Cash’s stepfather, Sunny Haire, is a transgender man and skilled guitarist who for years worked as the manager of one of the last lesbian bars in San Francisco, the Lexington Club, he told The Washington Post. As a child, Cash would spend time with her stepfather in the Lexington Club, sipping cranberry juice and watching the clientele.

Since 2013, Cash had been performing in a musical duo called Them Are Us Too alongside Kennedy Ashlyn, whom she met while studying at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Some have described the group as “goth” or “synth-pop,” but the duo prefers to refer to its sound as “visceral,” “euphoric” or simply “feelings.”

Most of all, the two identified as “queer femmes” and connected most with underground, queer or transgender communities of young people in different parts of the country, Ashlyn told the Post.

“It’s our chosen family, our radical music community,” Ashlyn said, describing their circle as one of “creative, beautiful people who are not as highly valued in normative spaces as they should be.”

Them Are Us Too released its first album last year, and had since toured the country several times, Ashlyn said. Cash had been working on a new demo track for years, and the duo had hoped to finish writing a new album within the coming year. They planned to tour South America at the end of January, Ashlyn said.

During their most recent performance, in Calgary, Alberta, Ashlyn and Cash looked at each other and said, “That was the best show we ever played,” Ashlyn said.

“I didn’t know that would be the last show we’d ever play,” Ashlyn said.

Ashlyn has known Cash for four years, she said, but she had never seen her friend as happy as in the year since she met her girlfriend, Taylor.

The couple had met about a year ago at a concert in Oakland and immediately connected through their love of music. Cash was a visionary, ethereal artist who “could cast a spell just by creating anything.” But at the same time, she was a kind, gentle person and a”total goofball,” Taylor said.

Cash came out as transgender about two years ago, and had begun transitioning this year, Ashlyn said.

“She was beginning to really thrive and shine as bright as we knew her to be,” Ashlyn said. “She really was her best self.”

In the middle of the night on Friday, Cash’s mother woke up to Haire, Cash’s stepfather, knocking on her door.

“Leisa we have to go,” Haire said. “Cash is trapped in a burning building.”

They rushed to the warehouse, where other friends and loved ones huddled, sobbing as they watched the flames engulf the structure, not knowing who would survive.

My baby’s in there, Askew thought. She wanted to run inside and find her, but she couldn’t.

“It was just crazy to watch,” she said. “It was really horrifying.”

Early Monday morning, Haire spoke of the stepdaughter he would miss deeply — the free-spirited, enigmatic, vibrant soul he taught to play guitar from the age of 7.

“The world hasn’t been a very kind place lately,” he said. “I’m in shock.”

Authorities in Oakland, Calif., say dozens of people have died in a fire that broke out during a party at warehouse that served as an art and music venue. (Video: Claritza Jimenez, Victoria Walker/The Washington Post, Photo: STEPHEN LAM/The Washington Post)

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