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

Anya Taylor was supposed to go the party on 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, realising 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.

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She rushed to the scene with other friends and, for four agonising 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."

Askew, the 22-year-old musician from Oakland, was one of at least 36 people who perished in Friday's fire, which spread quickly from a collective of artist studios known as the Ghost Ship through a two-story warehouse, officials said Sunday. Local officials said it ranked as one of the worst structural fires in recent US 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, 35, of Oakland, who loved to play the clarinet, the Los Angeles Times reported.


Among the dead was also 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 San Francisco Chronicle reported.

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 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.

"Queers need these spaces, we need to be celebrated with other people like us," Taylor said. "That was our community. That was Cash."

Growing up in Oakland, Askew was raised by a "very musical family, very artistic family, very queer family," said her mother, Leisa Baird Askew.

Askew'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, Askew would spend time with her stepfather in the Lexington Club, sipping cranberry juice and watching the clientele.

Since 2013, Askew 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, Santa Cruz. Some have described the group as "goth" or "synth-pop", but the duo prefers to refer to its sound as "visceral" or "euphoric."

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 said.

"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. Askew 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 Askew 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 Askew for four years, she said, but she had never seen her friend as happy as in past 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. Askew was a visionary, ethereal artist would "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.

Askew 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."

Washington Post