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When loved ones couldn’t track those missing in Oakland fire, they found answers on social media

In the desperate hours after the warehouse inferno — long before Oakland officials would release the identities of the charred bodies found inside — family and friends tried to cobble together information online.

From around California, as well as across the country and abroad, they signed onto Twitter and Facebook and shared hospital numbers and an evolving list of possible victims. Some found good news; others got a silence that felt telling.

For Cathy Proscia, the panic started inside her Boston home in the dark morning hours early Sunday. For some reason, she couldn’t sleep so she scrolled through news headlines on her phone, pausing at a story about a huge blaze at a warehouse concert in Oakland.

Her heart began to race.

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She knew that her 23-year-old son, Jesse Simmons, who lives in San Francisco, often attends concerts on Friday and Saturday nights. Sometimes, when he can’t find anyone to go with him, she said, he goes by himself.

His phone rang and rang, and she tried not panic. It was 2:30 a.m. in California, she reminded herself, so maybe he was asleep. She called the Oakland Police Department, which directed her to the Fire Department, which sent her to the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department. She couldn’t get anybody on the phone and she didn’t have numbers for any of her son’s friends.

Desperate for answers, she checked Facebook and found a group dedicated to the victims. Someone had posted a child’s painting of a rainbow with the message “sending healing light,” and a woman from Colorado wrote a message offering rides to Oakland for anyone who needed to be close to their family.

When Proscia posted at 6:01 a.m. she feared the worst: “Please can anyone tell me where I can find the list of names of those who perished.”

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Some strangers offered prayers and others sad-face emojis. One woman told her that families were gathering at a local service center and another posted the best number for the local Sheriff’s Department. Proscia dialed the department again and this time got an answer.

The employee told her that officials hadn’t yet identified all the victims, but asked for a detailed description of Jesse. How tall was he, they asked? Does he have any tattoos?

“Social media was an enormous help,” she said.

Eventually Proscia sent a text to her ex-husband, not expecting to hear back. But he responded with good news: Their son had been in L.A. for the weekend.

Another panicked parent searched Facebook for answers in Finnish.

“Any news of Hanna Ruax,” posted Yrjö Timonen, whose Facebook page lists Helsinki as home. “She is my daughter.”

Early Sunday morning, Timonen posted: “Ei sanoja. Vain suuri suru. Hanna,” which translates to: “No words. Just a great sorrow. Hanna.”

For some, online searches led to heartbreak.

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On Sunday afternoon, Robin Voss rushed to the airport to pick up her daughter Grace Lovio. She was flying home from Paris, where she is studying abroad, after discovering on Facebook that her boyfriend, Jason McCarty, was among those reported missing.

Lovio skipped her last final exam to catch a flight home.

“There’s absolutely zero hope at this point,” Voss said. “They’ve recovered, what, 24 bodies? And they’re just now getting started, so I think that the possibility of having any hope is pretty remote.”

Voss had also turned to Facebook Saturday morning searching for information about McCarty, an artist who she said worked as a sound technician and at a hotel.

“I’m a friend of Jason McCarty and am worried sick,” she wrote on the Facebook page for the event. “Any news?”

She considered going to the scene, but chose to stay at her Vacaville home, where she and her husband felt they could stay better informed by checking social media and news sites.

Flowers placed near the site of the Oakland warehouse fire.  Video by Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times

“We could get a lot more info that way,” she said. “We did have another family member in Oakland at the time and tried to gather info for us and it was all cordoned off, and she came up empty handed.”

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And for some friends of the missing, sharing news online felt like a duty.

A self-described “big Facebooker,” Carol Crewdson knew she had to spread the word after hearing that one of her friends went dancing at the Oakland warehouse. Everyone needed to know.

“Oh my god,” she wrote, “Sara Hoda is missing in this fire.”

She hoped that someone would respond saying Hoda was fine, but that never happened.

Instead, Crewdson heard from another friend who said Hoda texted her Friday night saying she had just finished meditating and was planning to go to the concert at the warehouse. The same friend said she spoke with Hoda’s brother, who said his sister’s truck was still parked outside the venue.

Before long, Crewdson posted an update.

“I’m sorry loves,” she wrote, “but it looks like she went with the flames.”

Crewdson met Hoda in 2010, when they started a collective — a landing place of sorts for traveling artists who couldn’t afford Northern California’s rising rents. They housed around 25 people at a time, sometimes as many as 32.

The Oakland party’s event page initially released a list of missing people to spread the word. But Hoda didn’t make the original list of missing, Crewdson said, because she didn’t have a Facebook — she didn’t RSVP to the party online.

City officials confirmed Hoda’s death late Sunday afternoon.

Times staff writer Sonali Kohli contributed to this report.

alene.tchekmedyian@latimes.com

sarah.parvini@latimes.com

marisa.gerber@latimes.com

 

ALSO

Criminal investigators join probe of blaze as death toll rises to 33

Residents describe harrowing escapes: ’20-foot flames shooting out of the window, that was my space’

Fire leaves community of artists reeling and fearful of a crackdown on enclaves

 


UPDATES:

8:15 p.m.: This article was updated with information from the family.

6:15 p.m.: This article was updated with confirmation of one of the victims.

This article was originally published at 5:05 p.m.


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