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Ghost Ship fire: The weight of being the public face for a MCI

It seemed like Alameda County Sheriff’s Office PIO Ray Kelly was on the screen every time they turned on the television following the tragic Ghost Ship warehouse fire


Standing beside Oakland PIO Johnna Watson, Sergeant Ray Kelly of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office answers reporters’ questions following the Ghost Ship warehouse fire. Kelly’s kids, upon seeing their dad on the TV, race to kiss the screen.

Image Courtesy of Ray Kelly

As part of our year-end coverage, we look back at some of the biggest and most heroic news stories, and reconnect with some of the officers and departments involved in the incidents to find out what has developed since.

In this article, Alameda County Sheriff’s Office PIO Sergeant Ray Kelly, describes what it was like to be the voice of his agency following the tragic warehouse fire at the artists’ collective known as the Ghost Ship. That fire, which killed 36 people and is now the deadliest in Oakland history, attracted news media organizations from around the world.

When you’re a police PIO and you start getting calls from the media in the small hours of the morning, it’s probably the start of a bad day. For Alameda County Sheriff’s Office PIO Sgt. Ray Kelly, this is precisely what happened around four in the morning on Saturday, Dec. 3.

“When Harry Harris of the Oakland Tribune calls you at four in the morning, you know something bad is going on,” Kelly told Police1. “Harry called me and said, ‘Ray there’s been a horrible fire. It’s not going to be good.’”

Kelly was hoping to enjoy spending time with his two kids— ages 3 and 6 — that day but the tragic warehouse fire at the artists’ collective known as the Ghost Ship would undermine those plans. That fire, which killed 36 people and is now the deadliest in Oakland history, attracted news media organizations from around the world.

An hour after the initial call, Kelly was dressed and heading to the scene, where the local media was already setting up. Soon after his arrival, Kelly met up with his counterpart from Oakland PD, Johnna Watson. For the next week, Kelly, Watson, and ACSO PIO J.D. Nelson would partner with the PIOs from the mayor’s office and the city manager’s office to tirelessly provide updates to the news media and the public who were hungry for answers in the aftermath of the tragedy.

“I was happy to see her and she was happy to see me because this was an event that you just can’t work alone,” Kelly said of Watson. “We became a unified command, but as information was coming out, the sheriff’s office and the fire department had the biggest role in responding to a lot of the questions coming in.”

As that first day went on, Kelly started getting calls from distraught families. At one point they had compiled a missing persons list of 200 names — they were faced with the possibility of as many as 200 casualties.

“We knew for sure there were more than the nine we could see, but we really didn’t know where this was going,” Kelly said.

The gravity of the situation became more apparent as the day progressed.

“We started getting more organized in working together and trying to make sense of the scene. The debris was so voluminous — it was like an airplane crashed inside a building — you could only walk about a foot or two inside the building before you were entangled in debris. There was so much debris that you could not make heads or tails out of what was in there. It was unstable, it was unsafe, it was hot,” Kelly said.

As the disaster scene started to get bigger and bigger, the team of first responders started pushing out the perimeter. There was a huge media presence — it went from local to national to international very quickly.

“I do my best under stress. I think a lot of us first responders are that way. We don’t necessarily do that well in the down times, but when we’re tested, that’s where we’re at our optimal. I saw that in everybody that was there” Kelly said.

Kelly was putting in at least 16-hour days for nearly a week after the fire, and he was not alone. The main mission for the days immediately following the fire was the recovery and identification of the deceased. Responders put in 12-hour shifts in the search, sometimes finding many victims in a shift, sometimes fewer. They meticulously measured the locations of the victims within the buildings, knowing that there would be questions from family members about those sorts of details.

One victim’s death cuts close to home

Not long after the recovery effort began, responders discovered that among the dead was the son of one of Kelly’s ACSO colleagues. They kept that information undisclosed for a while as the deputy and his family were informed of their loss. And to allow ACSO employees to process how close the Ghost Ship tragedy came to home for one of their own.

Kelly said learning about the death of his colleague’s son personalized an already tragic incident.

“The hardest moment for me at any of the press conferences was — and I can remember there was a reporter, I was answering questions at a live press conference — and there was a reporter off to my left and he said, ‘Isn’t it true that one of your deputies lost his son in the fire?’ Even though I knew that, and I had already kind of dealt with that, that question just took me so off guard. I was like, ‘Wow, I have to answer this question to the world.’ I was thinking about our deputy, and I was thinking, ‘I’ve got to answer this question basically for him.’ So that kind of gave me pause, and then I turned and I said, ‘Yeah, that’s true.’”

Kelly told Police1 that he did his best in that moment to not allow a tear to come to his eye, but that it was a gut-punch of a moment — all on live television. “It was a question I wasn’t ready for. I was ready for all sorts of questions, but that one really hit close to home.”

Kelly explained to the reporter the death of their colleague’s son was not preventing deputies from doing their jobs, but it definitely hurt.

Providing care and attention to the families

Kelly forced himself to leave the scene and the press area and visit with the family members at the assistance center.

“I was not only keeping the public informed, but I was talking directly with families — people who were literally hanging on my every word,” Kelly said. “Ultimately, I felt like my obligation was to them. I felt like I had an obligation to meet them in person so they could put a real, true person with the face they were seeing on television. It was important to me to go in there, sit down with the families, talk to them, listen to them and their worries, and to answer as many questions as I could.

Kelly gave people his phone number, telling them that they could call him if they needed anything, from dealing with the media to just talking with someone about their feelings.

“That was really the hardest part of the whole thing,” Kelly said. “Some of just the personal stories the families shared about their loved ones, you know, that was hard. Seeing that scene of despair — people waiting to get that notification that their family member died — knowing that once their name was called that it was not going to be good. It was probably going to be the worst day of their lives. It was very quiet — eerie.”

Kelly said that the people with the toughest job on the site were those who stood up and staffed the family assistance center and were making all the death notifications — the deputies that stood up the family assistance center.

“They last time I checked, standing up a family assistance center was not a learning domain in the police academy,” Kelly said.

He added that the fire scene was disconcertingly quiet too — the responders working the recovery effort did so in near silence.

“You had all those first responders working there, and yet you could hear a pin drop. Everybody knew what to do and where to go. It was just very somber. When we found a victim, we stopped and paused. You could just see the looks on people’s faces — ‘Damn, another person gone.’ What was weird about it was we would dig and find someone, and dig in another foot or two and find someone else right next to them. Then we’d go a ways again and we’d find more people. We did that all the way up to number 36. That took a toll on our personnel assigned inside the wreckage.”

Decompression in the aftermath

Kelly said that until you’ve seen death on such a large scale, no matter how experienced you are or how many years you have on the job, it’s impossible to fully prepare for it.

“That amount of death is not normal. We’re used to dealing with death in small doses. We’re used to going to those kinds of calls. We’re used to seeing people die. We’re used to dealing with car accidents and fires and homicides, but until you’ve seen death on that mass scale, it’s hard to wrap your mind around it. I think in coming months a lot of people who were there will be doing that, just like they had to do in Orlando and in San Bernardino, and all of these other different places where these mass-casualty events have occurred.”

During his 20-year career, Kelly has dealt with a lot of stuff — chaotic nights with lots of pursuits and in-progress emergencies. Kelly admits that getting to sleep following those busy shifts was not easy, with the mind still racing with questions like, ‘What could I have done better?’ Following his long days at the Ghost Ship, getting to sleep was no easier.

“I had moments where I felt fine, and I did get rest — and I had a lot of support both personally and professionally — but I was thinking ‘What can I do better in delivering the messages that I’m delivering.’ You always find yourself thinking about things when you should be shutting your mind off. For me, my mind shuts off slower than some people — I can’t just go lights-out. I’ve got to think about what I’ve dealt with that day.”

One private moment of decompression that became very public involved Kelly’s two kids — it is the photo (above) taken of his two kids kissing the television screen on which his face appeared during a press conference.

Kelly would later write, “Nothing good came out of that day for me except this picture. When my kids saw me on the screen they ran up to the television and began kissing my face. That picture is priceless to me because it shows me how much my kids love me when I am not with them. It’s real, pure and so damn cute.”

When he got home that night, he kissed his two sleeping children and contemplated how lucky he is.

In addition, Kelly said that his good friends on the department were also instrumental in his daily decompression.

“We use humor. We make fun of each other. We care about each other. We cry together. We laugh together. And so I couldn’t do this without those people — they’re a big part of my life.

“We had a tremendous amount of support. I was honored to be there and work as part of that team. So, I am thankful for that,” Kelly said.

He said everyone working the scene in Oakland was mission-focused and did not allow themselves to personalize the work during the recovery effort. That’s all happening now with responders getting peer support, attending group debriefs, and doing one-on-one counseling sessions.

“We didn’t do that stuff 20 years ago when I first started. We didn’t readily go to counseling. That culture has changed in a good way,” Kelly said. “I got a lot out of sitting through these group debriefings because things that affected someone else didn’t affect me in the same way. When I listened to their perspective I could understand, so it’s really important to communicate with each other. And it’s important that moving forward we keep an eye on people to make sure they’re doing okay.”

A job well done by everyone involved

Shrugging off compliments about a job well done or special recognition for his contribution, Kelly said that he credits the entire team for their excellent work.

“I’m proud of everybody I worked with — my co-workers, my sheriff. It’s not often you can tell your sheriff — your boss — how proud you are of him. I had the opportunity to do that. When you see the leadership like that it makes you proud to be part of an organization and proud to be a part of the profession,” Kelly said.

“This wasn’t about me — I’m just the guy who gets up and delivers the message. The message has to be right and it’s got to be sensitive and I have to respect the fact that families have lost people and families are in limbo not knowing if their family member was in there. I hope that I helped the team and the families.”

Kelly concluded, “There’s not a day goes by since this thing that I don’t think of the victims, the families, and all the first responders.”

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.