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Among Many Victims, Oakland Fire Robbed Trans Community of a 'Guide and Sister'

Oakland Memorial AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Friends and family have paid tribute to Feral Pines, a young woman and artist who was among at least 36 people killed in a blaze at a dance party last Friday night.

Bruce Fritz boarded a plane to California late Monday. No joy waited for him on the West Coast, no sunny prospects to match the weather.

Fritz embarked on a trip that no parent seeks: At the other side of that six-hour flight waited the remains of his child Feral Pines.

Pines, a transgender woman, was one of at least three dozen people inside the "Ghost Ship," an Oakland warehouse that caught fire Friday during an electronic-music concert.

Officials say the blaze, inside a building that in recent weeks had been investigated for blight and illegal structures, is one of the deadliest in U.S. history, and the deadliest in Oakland since 1991; still searching the rubble, officials said they expected the death toll to rise.

"She was a gentle soul, the kind of person who never had a bad word to say about anyone," Bruce Fritz said of Pines at his home in Fairfield County. "She was someone you wanted to put your arms around and not let go."

Pines, 29, had recently moved to Oakland from Indiana, her father said. She followed many of her friends there, seeking a community that was "more artistic, more friendly to her interests," Fritz said.

She was quickly adapting to California, he added. She had spent Thanksgiving with her brother Ben, who lives in nearby Los Angeles.

The father had received word on Saturday that Pines was one of the attendees at the concert in the warehouse, an artist's collective known for hosting such events.

When the chaos broke out during the show, Pines' friends were able to escape and begin the search for her. Fritz's agonizing wait for updates began with that search.

Late Sunday, he received word from the Alameda County medical examiner: They had identified Pines' body, he was told. Hours later, he was preparing for his cross-country trip to make final arrangements.

As he waited, he clung to the memories of her childhood in this corner of New England.

Music was her passion, as it had been for decades. Fritz brightened as he reminisced about the band practices held in his garage in Westport, Pines plucking away at her bass guitar.

After graduating from Staples High School in 2005, Pines attended the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, where she studied offset lithography, her father said.

Along the way, she made many friends, a network that spread out across the country. They came together as news of her death spread, uniting in their grief.

"You taught me a lot about myself, how to be a better friend, how to sew, how to both forgive and make amends," one wrote in a memorial on Facebook. "You welcomed me into your home and into your circle of friends when I had lost my way."

Scout Wolfcave, a transgender activist who lived with Pines for a year in Indiana, traveled to Oakland on Monday to assist with relief efforts for her and the other transgender victims of the fire.

"She was my best friend," Wolfcave said during a brief phone call Monday.

Later, Wolfcave sent a statement.

She called the 29-year-old "the best person you have ever met," and praised her artistic ability: she cherishes the "tape art" Pines left on her walls.

"For many of her trans community, Feral was a guide and sister in a world of small joys and terrible precarity for trans women," Wolfcave said. "Feral was truly committed to empowering those that the world deems powerless."

Wolfcave said it will take time time for Pines' death to sink in. "I don't think anyone has fully processed this."

Least of all Amanda Parry, Pines' older sister.

"She was kind and beautiful," Parry said while visiting her parents' home in Westport. "She didn't have a bad bone in her body. I wish I could've been more like her."

Parry underscored her sister's bravery and strength in embracing "her true self," coming out as transgender.

In recent weeks, Pines had told her older sister about her new life in Oakland, how she had surrounded herself with a community that "shared her values and interests."

"She was planning on starting a new band, and it felt good for her to get back to that, her passion," Parry said.

They last spoke at the end of October, when Parry texted Pines spontaneously with a flash of nostalgia.

As she played Wham's "Last Christmas" for her 3-year-old daughter, she was taken back to her youth, when she and Pines would dance along to that song, laughing.

"It's a memory I'll always have," Parry said.

This story originally appeared in The Hartford Courant.

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