A World on Fire
Life and Death in a New Orleans Squat
Jan 1, 2012
40 Min read time
When Byron Pound woke up, the world around him was on fire.
When Byron Pound woke up, the world around him was on fire. He saw flames crawling up the walls, and he could feel heat closing in. Thick smoke obscured the rest of the abandoned warehouse where he and some others were squatting. He called Smokey, his dog, but got no response. He tried to yell to the others, but drawing in that much air made him choke.
He sprinted to the door with another squatter, an older man, right behind. When they burst into a frosty December night in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward, the other man kept running. The rush of air from the opened door accelerated the flames. Byron turned to go back in, but fire engulfed the entrance. He heard the sirens of approaching emergency vehicles. As the fire consumed the structure, the metal cladding on the exterior walls began to peel away in big sheets, forming a red-hot skirt around the warehouse. The blaze lit up the sky in a neighborhood without streetlights.
Seventeen vehicles arrived carrying 49 firefighters. “There’s people in there,” Byron called to them. They worked quickly to extinguish the flames. Then, flashlight beams scanned the embers as the coroner removed eight bodies.
As the sun came up, a small group of distraught and disheveled young people gathered at the perimeter. Once the officials cleared out, the kids climbed past the twisted heaps of corrugated metal to sit in the ruins and hold each other. It had been a terrible few months for the young travelers who gather in the abandoned houses of the Ninth Ward, with two suicides and now eight killed in the warehouse. Just five days earlier, a much-loved member of the community named Flea was shot and killed in a robbery in his apartment.
No one could be certain who was sleeping in the warehouse: so many of the traveling crowd had hopped trains to New Orleans for New Year’s. They knew each other by nicknames like Red Ass and Car Wash, not much help in trying to reach the parents. They called, texted, and posted messages on Facebook announcing the tragedy, trying to establish who had headed to the warehouse after Flea’s funeral procession ended at the St. Roch Tavern the night before.
The city’s reaction to the fire, the most lethal in 30 years, was fierce. Many residents had grown tired of these tattooed and pierced panhandlers. In the days after the fire, there were calls to enforce vagrancy laws more strictly and bulldoze the squats. Yet the conditions in the crime-infested streets of the Ninth Ward were already very rough, and that hadn’t kept anyone away. As Flea’s procession the day before the fire had demonstrated, there were a lot more of these traveling kids in town than those begging for change in the French Quarter.
Flea’s second line was big, and the one for the warehouse fire was bigger still. Second lines feature a hired brass band that walks solemnly through town playing classic New Orleans jazz, usually with a police escort. The second lines for Flea and for the warehouse fire were homegrown. Street musicians led, followed by people with elaborate homemade signs, dancers, and a silent line of riders on tall bikes. For a few hours, a crowd that lives in the city’s shadows marched through its main streets.
I knew this crowd of young transients was growing every year and that the conditions supporting their dangerous way of life didn’t start or end in the Ninth Ward. I knew this because my daughter was one of them.
• • •
When my daughter Marissa first disappeared into this life, I thought daily about the many ways she might die: in a train yard at the hands of a wild man or mangled by a train, on a street corner in some crumbling neighborhood, or by disease or dehydration. My most frequent image was of a fire in a squat.
Once she called from Paradise City, a huge squat in an abandoned seven-story Philadelphia apartment building. She was on the roof smoking a cigarette and admiring the view of downtown. The place was filled with traveling kids. Everybody got an apartment, and most of the spaces had a mattress or two. “This place is awesome!” she said, her voice exuberant with traveler’s luck.
I knew this dangerous life didn’t start or end in the Ninth Ward. I knew because my daughter had chosen it too.
These bits of information only encouraged my dark cast of mind. I pictured her and the others on the roof at sunset with twelve-packs of Pabst Blue Ribbon, boxes of wine, some weed, and a few bottles of the hard stuff. Live music, too; many carried instruments and knew how to play them. I imagined them dancing on the roof until they were wasted. Then they’d stumble down an unlit stairwell to their rooms and collapse on the filthy mattresses. A few would light candles. When one of those fell over, the fire would spread quickly across the wooden floors. That would be it. I’d never see my baby again.
A year and a half later, after she had circumnavigated the country, Marissa came home. Relieved, I didn’t ask many questions, and she didn’t volunteer much. She didn’t think I’d ever understand why she had to go or what she was seeking when she left. The most she and her friends offered by way of explanation were stories about hopping trains.
Like the August evening she and her traveling buddy Joey Two Times hopped a Cadillac grainer out of Alabama. The grainer’s front and back angle to a wide V that funnels the cargo out a spigot in the bottom. The Cadillac feature is its fenced porches, fore and aft. This is where they lounged as the train pulled away from the heat of the barren yard. Within an hour or two, the moon had risen, and they were snaking through the lush southern summer singing at the tops of their lungs.
I could see that. I could feel it. And because of that, I didn’t believe that what I valued and what my daughter did were now so far apart that we no longer shared a common language. I had to admit there were moments when I admired her bravery, and her timing.
She left a few months before the economy collapsed in 2008. By the winter of that year, when my personal economy also collapsed, there were many times when I envied how she had slung just as much as she needed into a garbage bag and split. I felt that pull toward open spaces. Take a chance. Risk it all on the untarnished future.
Not that I’d ever say that to her, of course.
Then in the early hours of December 28, 2010 eight people, some of whom she knew, died in that terrible conflagration in New Orleans. Suddenly we had the common language of grief. The dead—aged 17 to 29—were from Wisconsin, Texas, California, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Nebraska, and New Orleans. I knew how they died, but I didn’t know how they lived. How had they ended up in the squat on that night? What forces had pushed them onto the rails, and what had they left behind? Was I an outlier among those eight sets of parents, or were there others like me? Perhaps Marissa was right that I couldn’t understand, but this tragedy made me want to try.
I knew I’d never be allowed into this clandestine and suspicious world without my daughter as my guide. I asked her to take me there. To my surprise, she agreed. Two weeks after the fire, we flew to New Orleans.
• • •
East of St. Claude is where the Ninth Ward begins. Walking there, it’s best to stay in the center of the street so you don’t trip over jagged pieces of concrete that jut up at rough angles where the sidewalk is supposed to be. On the night of December 27, kids coming to the squat from the French Quarter, or from St. Roch Tavern after Flea’s second line, probably would have taken St. Ferdinand past the shotgun duplexes, scrap metal shops, and burnt-out, boarded-up houses that stand amidst a smattering of tidy homes with tiny fenced-in front yards.
No matter the route, the squat in the big lot on North Prieur was easy to find. The graffiti on its corrugated metal siding served as a traveler’s welcome sign where North Prieur came to a dead end at the edge of the train yard.
The moon had risen, and they were snaking through the lush southern summer, singing at the tops of their lungs.
Trains snort and hiss, break apart and come together only a few hundred yards from the site of the warehouse. Visitors would climb a short flight of stairs to the door through which Byron made his escape. The interior space was two stories tall, and the floor had been pieced together from railroad ties. To the left was the loft where offices had been. The warehouse was abandoned years before Katrina ravaged the landscape. “Money doesn’t cross too far past St. Claude,” said my daughter’s friend Izzy, who walked with us from his house nearby.
The city bulldozed what was left of the warehouse shortly after the fire. On the day we visited, in its place was a plank hammered into the ground with “FOR THE KIDZ” etched into the wood. Izzy, Marissa, and I put our arms around each other’s shoulders for a moment of silence. I thought about the kids first, but I thought most about the parents who would never stand on this corner.
Even before that night, these parents likely knew something about the recklessness of the lives their children chose. For most of the kids, homelessness did not come from a horrid fall or a gradual decline. It was elective, a deliberate leap into the abyss. Recklessness as a point of pride. To see how far you could push it and still live. Or not live; many said they didn’t expect to see the age of 30. Wildness drew them to the rails, but in New Orleans I saw that more than wildness held them together.
They were a tribe with ritual markings and an initiation rite: hopping your first train, usually as an apprentice to a small pack of travelers. When they rolled into town together, one of them knew a bar or café where they could find out about a place to throw down their sleeping bags.
Always skirting the edge of the law, they depended on each other for survival. “You’re living for free,” said MoMo, a friend of my daughter’s whom I met in New Orleans. “You need your essentials: food, water, and a place to sleep. You are struggling for your survival, but you are doing it with your friends. Traveling with people, you can be closer in a couple of days than you can be in a couple of years with other people.”
As they traveled, the pack would scrutinize the initiate—the “oogle”—thoroughly. If the oogle was cooperative and didn’t endanger the pack, he or she would learn about the stable squats, the most plentiful dumpsters, and the best hop out spots—where travelers hide while they wait to catch a train. The elders don’t tell their secrets to just any oogle, because oogles might “blow it up”—tell other oogles indiscriminately. Oogles are so noisy and stupid, they’d lead the railroad cops right to the hop out spot. Or, on the next visit to that bountiful dumpster, they’d find the oogles had picked it clean.
In the warmer months, freight cars carry thousands between the crumbling parts of America, mostly places where manufacturing once thrived. As the weather turns cold, the seasonal migration from Buffalo and Oakland to Austin and New Orleans begins.
New Orleans, though, is a special destination, a holy place in a profane world. Liquor is cheap and, with 43,000 abandoned residential properties, a quarter of the city’s housing stock, so is shelter. There you can drink on the street any time you want, lose your cares while blackout drunk. The pull of the city is so strong that many find it is hard to leave. “I’d get drunk and stupid and wake up two days later, and the people I was going to hop out with, they’d split,” MoMo recalled. “I had to go find some more. And then the same thing would happen. It was hell. Finally, I just did it myself. I had to go. I couldn’t let New Orleans win.”
For most of the kids, homelessness was elective, a deliberate leap into the abyss.
Besides those who are stuck there, many come through NOLA for New Year’s Eve and the Black Label party and bike joust, which always draws a big crowd. Riders consume a whole six-pack of beer, mount tall bikes, and attempt to knock off their opponents using long poles with padded tips. There were a lot of oogles in town for Black Label. This was part of what made it hard to figure out who was in the warehouse.
Among those I met in New Orleans, the widespread feeling was that the oogles had to have set the fire. Only an oogle would do something that dumb. Sammy, for one, never would have.
Sammy “Bam Bam” Thompson had been living on the streets of NOLA on and off for eight years. When he was seventeen, he dropped out of high school and his mother kicked him out of the house. He went directly to the French Quarter, where he’d spent most days anyway as he spent less and less time in school. There he met Anna Lynne Thompson, also seventeen, who had fled a dysfunctional home back in Mississippi. “We both felt life was dispensable, everything is dispensable,” Anna Lynne said. “We were wild. We didn’t want to build life. All we wanted was maintaining the day to day.”
Some nights they would climb to the top of the Canal Place Shopping Mall to skateboard on the roof overlooking the Mississippi. “He taught me to skateboard in high heels,” Anna Lynne said. One image that sticks with her is of Sammy hanging over the side of the roof, gripping the rim with his bare hands and laughing like a maniac. “In those two seconds, I saw losing him. I just keep seeing him there, gripping on.”
That first year on his own, Sammy met Matt, the man he chose as his brother. “Some friends and me, we were sitting looking at the river, getting drunk,” Matt said. “He was running around being his happy Sammy self and he said, ‘C’mon, you’re my older brother.’ I needed a younger brother. I needed him as much as he needed me. Little oogle kid.”
He was called Bam Bam because he liked to fight and was pretty good at it, an expression of his manic physical energy. “He was definitely a scrappy fucker,” said his friend Burnout, who, around the time of the fire, was teaching Sammy to weld tall bikes. “This is a rough city to grow up in, a white boy living in the hood. You’ve got to learn to use these,” Burnout said, holding up his fists. “When someone did something stupid, he wasn’t diplomatic.”
Sammy moved into the squat when he was kicked out of the room he’d been renting. His friend Cricket had reopened the warehouse in early December to house some friends who were passing through town for the holidays. “Me and a friend broke into it and Sammy rolled in there and started to hold it down,” Cricket said.
At that time, the warehouse no longer had steps leading to the entrance. Sammy and a few others maneuvered a big rock alongside the landing to step up on. The kids picked up the trash around the perimeter of the warehouse and swept the place clear of glass. They slung old fire hoses over the rafters and lashed a board to them to make a swing that swooped over the floor of the warehouse, almost up to the ceiling, to the cheers of their friends.
• • •
Melissa Martinez was thriving in New Orleans when her life was cut short in the warehouse fire.
Just as people were coming together at the warehouse, Nikki Pack, or Nurse Nikki, arrived with the band Profane Sass. That Nikki spontaneously decided to leave town with a band came as no surprise to her family. “As soon as she could crawl, she would crawl to anyone,” her father, Joe Pack, said. “Everybody who came in contact with her just loved her. Outgoing, fun, bubbling all the time. She walked into a room and the whole room lit up.”
Joe was no stranger to impulsiveness, having married Nikki’s mom, Michele, only a few months after they met. They were an army family, moving from Pittsburgh to Germany, to upstate New York, back to Germany and then to Hawaii, where Joe and Michele divorced. Nikki was bright but bored in school, her father said. “She was smart, a great reader, but she would stop doing her homework. After about two months, the teachers were calling.”
One night, when Nikki was fourteen, her mother Michele refused to allow her to go to a rock concert. Nikki climbed out the window. Michele locked the window to force a confrontation. When Nikki found the locked window, she left.
Joe called everyone in Nikki’s phone book and put up flyers offering a $1,000 reward. Two weeks later, one of her friends who wanted the reward called Joe. When her father found her, Nikki returned seemingly without any guilt for the agony she’d caused her parents. “None of the consequences I threatened her with meant anything to her,” Joe said. “When she was older, I told her either she gets a job or goes to school by the end of the week or I’m kicking her out. So the end of the week, she’s got her stuff packed and she left to live under a bridge with her friends.”
Nikki dropped out of high school, but took the GED and passed it easily, without even studying, so she could enlist in the army in 2008. This turned out to be a bad choice, as she and some others went AWOL a few weeks later. She made her way back to Pittsburgh, where she got a job and also got pregnant. Before her son Jacob was born in August 2009, her father begged her to give him up for adoption. “I hoped otherwise but deep down I knew she wouldn’t change her ways because she had a baby,” Joe said. After some mishaps with Jacob’s childcare, the family took over. Jacob went first to Nikki’s mother and then to her grandmother. Nikki’s aunt Lisa Barca believed that was a good decision. “I don’t think she had any plans of a home. I hung out with her friends for a while. Fun, carefree. I can see how easy it is to get drawn into this life.”
• • •
Lisa is right about that. Hanging out with traveling kids can be a blast. An evening with them doesn’t really get going until around 9 or 10 p.m., and it ends at sunrise. As a visiting mom, I was welcomed and treated with deference by everyone I met. In a place with few chairs, I always had a seat. At meals, I ate first, on real dishes and with silverware. As the evenings rolled on, I was constantly offered free drinks and free drugs and was often encouraged to allow someone to give me a free tattoo.
In the beginning of my time in New Orleans, I had a hard time seeing people for other than their tattoos. Gradually I began to see some of the work as beautiful. I couldn’t quite believe it when I realized that Marissa’s friend Natassia had shaved her eyebrows off and had circles tattooed in their place. The circles, starting small at the bridge of her nose and gradually expanding in circumference as they reached the outer edges of her brow bone, accentuated the lovely form of her heart-shaped face. Burnout’s colorful tattoo of a gruesome zombie hobo was a cartoon classic. I took a picture of it and for a while had it as the wallpaper on my phone.
I was struck, too, by the beauty of the kids who had died, when I found images of them online. A professional photographer once stopped Justin Lutz, 29, of Missouri, on the street to ask if he’d sit for portraits. I found the Facebook page of Katie Simianer, 21, from Nebraska, a button-nosed beauty whose hint of a smile combined a touch of whimsy with a bit of wisdom. Nurse Nikki also was hard to forget. One image of her in the newspaper and on Facebook was glamorous. She was standing outside, leaning back and wearing wrap-around shades, her mouth in an ironic smile, as if she was just passing through on her way to a better party.
In October 2010 Nikki attended a Profane Sass show in a house in Pittsburgh. “Nikki was really rocking out to our music,” said Kiwi, one of the members of the band. “We voted and decided to let her come on tour with us. She played washboard.”
New Orleans is a holy place in a profane world. Liquor is cheap and, with 43,000 abandoned residences, so is shelter.
After playing some East Coast cities, Profane Sass arrived in New Orleans on December 1. The second day they were there, Nikki met Sammy, and they hit it off right away. When Profane Sass decided to leave town just after Christmas, Nikki said she was staying. On December 27, the day before the fire, she posted on her Facebook page, “We are going to do all the bitch work to open a bike coop/clothing store/screen printing place” in the warehouse.
So the mission was a bit confused. The space was so big it stimulated fantasies about ways to fill it. The cheap houses in New Orleans inspire many dreams of a more permanent community. There are pockets of great industry—such as Termite Haus, a bustling squat where hundreds of kids passing through over the years have built a habitable home with running water, electricity, and WiFi—and a whole lot of not getting things done. A large segment of the population is essentially sleep reversed; they’re awake when all of officialdom is closed. Well, there’s always another day.
Sammy and Nikki portioned off the space in the loft for bedrooms. There was Katie, her boyfriend Jeff Geertz, and their two rescued puppies named Jimmy and Tipsy. Alicia, a friend of Sammy’s, also had a bedroom in the loft. She brought the young man she’d ridden into town with from Austin, Jonathan Guerrero.
• • •
It had been almost a year since Jonathan abruptly left his family in Texas for life on the road. His departure came as a shock to his mom, Karen, who, with his aunt Tamara, raised Jonathan and his sister after their father abandoned the family. But Tamara wasn’t surprised. “God just put too many things on that kid,” she said, listing epilepsy, dyslexia, bipolar disorder, and scoliosis among his problems.
After high school and a tough year at junior college, Jonathan’s most successful job was at Pizza Hut. The manager said Jonathan was doing so well that he might make him the assistant manager when he opened a new store. Karen and Tamara were overjoyed that Jonathan had found a way to latch onto the world. They put down the deposit on an apartment for him in July 2009 and filled it with secondhand furniture. Tamara bought him a car.
What the family didn’t know was that in his apartment in the Fort Worth suburb of Bedford, Jonathan was exploring a new kind of life. “We called it Deadford,” his friend Doggie said. “We’d just get drunk all the time.” Doggie had left home at sixteen to ride the rails. Jonathan loved Doggie’s tales of freedom on the road. The risks of this life were obvious to Jonathan, Doggie said, reinforced by the fact that Doggie no longer had all of his fingers. The tips of his left index and middle fingers as well as his right ring and index fingers had been severed when a train backed over his hands. Doggie took Jonathan on his first train ride, and to New Orleans. In January of 2010, Jonathan hit the road and told his family he wasn’t coming back.
When Karen and Tamara went to clean out the apartment, they gasped. He’d left the door unlocked and let it be known in the punk community that here was a free place for anyone to stay.
Someone had stabbed the couch repeatedly with a knife and turned it upside down. The walls were painted with skulls and inverted crosses with blood dripping from them. “I told my godson Derek this felt evil,” Tamara said. “He brought his Bible and we said prayers before we went inside.” Once inside they discovered that since October Jonathan had not been taking his medication, even though he’d picked it up from his mom every month.
Refusing to their medications is a common rite of passage into the traveling crowd. The frantic parents, who don’t understand the changes in their children, bring them to doctors and counselors. These counselors often place the kids on anti-depressants and other psychiatric medications. When the kids enter this world, they say that they want to feel everything unfiltered by prescription drugs, although illegal drugs and alcohol are common.
For Jonathan, who was medicated for bipolar disorder, going off the drugs was more serious than tossing aside Prozac. Still, his new friends applauded him, believing that society only doses you to make you a cog in the big machine. “That medication they had him on, it made him a zombie,” Doggie said. “When he started drinking, he came out of his shell.”
‘If a bunch of college kids had burned up in the same way . . . . they’d say it was a tragedy, not a civic disgrace.’
Jonathan returned to Texas for Thanksgiving 2010. Tamara and Karen were so frightened by what they had found in his apartment that they put him up in a motel instead of allowing him to spend the holiday at home. His sister, Nina, visited him there and found the room crowded with six traveling kids, two very sick dogs, and one young woman’s pet white rat. “Someone had written on the wall, ‘Fuck Family Fest,’ Nina recalled. “Jon was drunk out of his mind and they were all slurring words, but he just wanted to see me. He was so drunk; he almost burned his face. I didn’t stay long.”
Jonathan rode to New Orleans after Thanksgiving in a car with Sammy’s friend Alicia. He called Doggie on Christmas morning to brag about his great setup in New Orleans. He was staying in this big warehouse with all these kids. Plus he had an awesome girlfriend, Melissa Martinez.
• • •
Seventeen-year-old Melissa and her best friend, Cicely Rizzuto, liked roaming the streets of the French Quarter to see what fate and chance might bring their way. They’d been best friends almost from the moment they met in April 2007, when Melissa was visiting her mother, Rebecca Snook, in New Orleans during a break from school in California. In the summer of 2009, something had happened in California that Melissa didn’t like to talk about. Her dad, Angel Martinez, and his wife, Jennifer, were so furious with her that they sent her to New Orleans to live with her mother.
One day shortly before Christmas 2010, Melissa and Cicely were walking down Decatur Street when they saw a striking young man leaning up against a doorway smoking. He had a few strands of dreadlocks at the nape of his neck and was wearing a jean jacket with torn sleeves that showed off his strong arms. “What she liked about Jonathan was that he was free. He didn’t have someone telling him what to do. She liked the way that sounded,” Cicely said.
Melissa always struggled against confinement. She, too, had snuck out her bedroom window in California, and her grades had dropped dramatically as tension between her and her father escalated. When Melissa arrived in New Orleans, Rebecca decided to try something different with her. As they drove from the airport, Rebecca told her daughter that she was in a “judgment-free zone. Whatever you need, I am here. I want to make sure you are happy and you are OK.”
Cicely and Melissa were taking classes at an online high school. Melissa also worked at Mona’s Café on Frenchman Street. Rebecca encouraged Melissa to bring her friends over, including the homeless teenagers she was meeting at her job, one of whom stayed at their house for a week and a half. “If I said no, she would be out of the house supporting him in his troubled time. I thought the more that she was in my environment, the safer she was.”
Over that year, Rebecca and Melissa became close. “I very decidedly took a tack that regardless of the heart attack it gave me, I wanted to know as much as possible about what was going on,” Rebecca said. “The only way to accomplish that with a teenage girl is to completely detach yourself from any judgment and communication of disapproval. If I was to express that, she would be out of my environment completely. I felt like I was so lucky to have the ability to lure my daughter anywhere.”
Rebecca knew Melissa was involved with a new boyfriend, but Melissa texted her frequently during the day, “literally every three minutes. She never let me worry.” Melissa was punctual at her job, never missed a shift, and was doing well in online high school. “She was just rip-roaring through the curriculum,” Rebecca said. “She had plans to go to school in London and live with my sister there. She was the one who was driving this process.” As far as Rebecca knew, all was right with her daughter.
• • •
“God just put too many things on that kid,” says Jonathan Guerrero’s aunt. He fled his Texas home for New Orleans.
Just as Jonathan and Melissa were falling for each other, on another street in New Orleans, Justin Lutz and his girlfriend Georgia Fullerton Tadlock were breaking up. They were in Georgia’s van, flat broke and busted, trying to figure out how to get something to eat. They argued. Justin was six feet four inches tall, very lean, and covered in tattoos and piercings. He wanted Georgia to beg for change in the French Quarter, but she refused. He grabbed her sunglasses so roughly that he scared her. She tossed his blanket, duffel bag, and books onto the sidewalk and set off. “He’d always said he wanted to go to New Orleans,” Georgia said. “So he got his wish. I had no idea I’d never see him again.”
When Justin arrived at the warehouse some time that week, the place was a nonstop party, the biggest playpen in New Orleans, with a skate park nearby and a sand pit. If you stood in one of the roll-up doorways, you could see the railroad workers assembling trains on the tracks. Railroad workers call slamming cars together “humping.” “We called it The Hump Squat, cos err’one was humpin’ there, even the trains . . . ha!” wrote Audrey “Bean” Chmielowski, one of the residents. She painted purple lines on the floor for an indoor basketball court.
Katie was called the “Squat Mama” because every morning she was up earlier than the rest and made breakfast. Bean said she admired Katie’s knowledge of all sorts of odd and disconnected subjects. She knew about the way trees pollinate; she had a welding certificate. In the world of the squat, she was very protective. She made sure that no one ventured out alone. They had to have someone with them or bring along a dog.
There was a lot of concern about the cold. Mostly, according to Kiwi from Profane Sass, they built a fire in the sand pit a few yards away from the warehouse and stood around it. As the temperatures continued to drop below freezing around Christmas, the kids brought the fire inside.
They cut a barrel in half, mounted it on stubby legs, and huddled close on three benches they placed nearby, where they also sat to cook their meals. There was tension between those who wanted to seal up the drafty spaces and those who wanted to keep them open to vent the fumes.
They nailed some scavenged metal around the fire pit to protect the wood, but “the metal around the edge was too hot to touch when the fire was going, so they were trying to figure out a way to insulate it,” Cicely said. Sammy was concerned that the ventilation shaft in the ceiling wasn’t very effective, so he made sure that the fire was out completely before he went to bed at night.
On the night of the 27th, mourners from Flea’s second line gathered at the St. Roch and drank with frightening intensity. “To watch everybody just pour more alcohol on top of everything and get more fucked up than they needed to be to deal with it, but nothing got dealt with, it was painful to watch,” said a woman named Button, who was at the St. Roch that night.
Melissa had been at Cicely’s dying her hair red. Around 10 p.m., Melissa asked Cicely to come with her to meet up with Jonathan. Cicely didn’t feel like going out, so Melissa headed to the St. Roch alone.
On the other side of town, Melissa’s mom, Rebecca, was at a bar with some friends watching the New Orleans Saints edge out the Atlanta Falcons for a playoff berth. As the Saints marched down the field for a touchdown, someone spilled beer on Rebecca’s phone. She quickly disassembled it to prevent it from shorting out. When she got home and reassembled the phone, there was a message from Melissa asking her if it was OK if she stayed out with her friend Jon that night. “I texted her she was welcome to come home and that there was money in the jar on the hall table for a taxi. Her response to that was almost always that she’d see me when she got home, but this time she never responded.” Rebecca went to sleep assuming Melissa would be there when she woke in the morning.
But she wasn’t. Rebecca texted her but got no response. “I was texting her from work all day long and trying not to let my mind go crazy,” she said. “The last text I sent her was, ‘Hey, if you’re still alive, do you want to hang out tonight?’” Rebecca waited until 4 p.m. before allowing herself to panic. She called Cecily to ask her to search for Melissa.
• • •
News of the fire, which was reported shortly before 2 a.m., spread across the time zones. Around 9 a.m. Nina Guerrero got a Facebook message from a friend of Jonathan’s. “Hey Nina,” it read, “I hate to say this but there was a fire and people were killed and I’m pretty sure that your brother was in there.” Someone else posted the number for the New Orleans coroner’s office. “I didn’t want to tell my mom because, what if it wasn’t true? But I had to tell her,” Nina said. “She started crying and she said she had a feeling this was going to happen.”
Sammy’s aunt Beth Penot was at work at Walmart when her daughter called to tell her about the fire. Beth hadn’t seen Sammy since she ran into him on a New Orleans city bus five or six years earlier. “Mom, do you know what Sammy’s last name is? There’s an article in the paper about some kids who died in a fire and one of them is named Sammy,” she said. Beth wasn’t sure. “I was so confused,” Beth said. “The article said Sammy had a brother named Matt and I knew he didn’t.” The story mentioned that one place Sammy had hung out was a bike repair shop called Plan B. Beth left work and drove there.
The radical freedom my daughter embraced imprisoned me. I was locked in the feeling that I’d failed her.
When she arrived at Plan B, the kids invited her to come to a bike rally in Sammy’s memory. “I followed them in my car and we went to this abandoned railroad track area. Then all of a sudden there were a hundred of them and the neighbors. Everyone there treated me with a lot of tenderness. You wouldn’t know it from the way they look, but a lot of them have really big hearts and they opened their hearts to me,” she said.
Cecily and her boyfriend went to the St. Roch to ask if anyone had seen Car Wash, Jonathan’s train name. The somber crowd at the bar told her about the fire. Cecily and her boyfriend rushed to the warehouse. When they turned the corner on North Prieur, Cicely gasped and collapsed on her boyfriend’s shoulder. “There was nothing left,” Cicely said. “Nothing.”
• • •
In the months since, the punk crowd has closed ranks around the memory of the fire. Many have expressed anger that the press had called them homeless kids when they preferred to be remembered as artists and musicians. “If a bunch of college kids had burned up in the same way, the stories they wrote would be different,” MoMo said. “They’d say it was a tragedy, not a civic disgrace.”
They also developed their own explanation for what happened that night: the oogles threw more fuel into the fire when it was supposed to be out for the night. An experienced traveler never would have done that. “When a horrible St. Roch squat fire killed eight people, a lot of my friends expressed anger and disgust towards the dead rather than sympathy,” a New Orleans–based author named Jules Bentley wrote in the summer 2011 issue of Slingshot, a punk publication. “‘Fuck those fucking kids,’ said some folks who really should know better, some who were themselves those kids not so long ago.”
According to Byron Pound, a few days before the warehouse burned, the area around the fire pit ignited. Without running water in the squat, they had to stamp it out. This inspired them to craft the metal shield.
“So you have an open fire pit with embers popping out onto old railroad ties that were coated in creosote, which is flammable,” said Louisiana State Fire Inspector Lance LaMarca. “The metal they put down only extended the legs of the barrel. It heated the floorboards, so, when a spark flew, it was literally a tinderbox. That place had 50 ways to kill you.”
Fifty ways to kill you there, a hundred more on the streets, and five hundred in the train yard. The homicide rate in New Orleans was more than ten times the national average in 2010, with much of the killing concentrated in the territory between the Ninth Ward and the French Quarter. There were more than 400 rail yard–trespasser fatalities in 2010, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. Besides the crime, alcoholism, and physical danger, in these squalid conditions the kids contracted the kinds of serious infections that most Americans don’t catch—staph, cellulitis—and required frequent emergency room visits. When I sat at the St. Roch to talk with Matt about Sammy, he clicked through 30 or more images of close friends of his who had died in the seventeen years he’d been in New Orleans, not announcing them by name, but by cause of death. “Suicide, overdose, overdose, liver failure, suicide,” Matt said, then his voice started to crack. “This town, this life. Sometimes you go this way, some times you go another.”
Yet danger is vital to this life, and as highly valued as freedom. Danger, violence, and silence create the sense of exclusivity. Only a few from the regular world would choose this, and fewer still survive it. Doggie’s severed fingers were a badge of honor. He took it right up to the edge and managed to pull it back. If only those in the warehouse had been able to do the same.
• • •
Officially the City of New Orleans has not established a cause of the fire. Wayne Regis, the inspector who investigated it, agreed with Inspector LaMarca: the fire appeared to have spread from the fire pit. He could not be 100 percent certain, because there hadn’t been much left to investigate. Eighty percent of the building was incinerated in a blaze so hot that the bodies could not be identified by DNA, only by dental records. And Regis could not rule out foul play. Police never found the other man who ran from the building.
Regis was the first in after the firefighters, and part of his routine is to capture images as he walks the fire scene. He gave me a CD of those images. He spared me nothing. As I clicked through the photos of collapsed walls and steaming embers, I came across the skeletons of the dead still in their beds, their bodies in the innocent poses of sleep.
When we met in New Orleans, Regis’s boss, Chief Elbert R. Thomas, said he wanted to send the traveling community a message.
“I don’t know if you can appeal to that consciousness, particularly coming from a position of authority, but of humanity, of safety, of this as an example of what can happen to any of them no matter how savvy they think they are,” Thomas said. “There are inherent dangers in a structure you have no legal right to be in, no knowledge of the conditions that exist in this building from asbestos or lead or other things that cannot be readily seen. Make them all aware of this. They are all connected to someone.”
I asked Inspector Regis if he had anything to add. Regis is a precise man who speaks slowly, in carefully measured words, and bristles at anything he sees as an assumption. His starchiness and exactitude faded as he searched for what to say. Clearly our conversation had taken him back to that dark morning in the warehouse. He hung his head, at first unable to look at me as he said, “I may not have anything to state, but I have questions, as in: Is it really so bad where you came from that this is better than that? Is it really that bad?”
Now I realize I too had sought liberation in New Orleans, liberation from Inspector Regis’s question. The radical freedom my daughter embraced created a form of imprisonment for me. Even though Marissa assured me I had nothing to do with her choice, for that year and a half she was away, I was locked in the feeling that I had failed her. The sense of safety I had provided at home clearly hadn’t been enough.
Or maybe my vision of her future was what she ran from. I had said, stay in school, get a job, buy a house, and you’ll retire securely, even though that hadn’t worked out for me. When she said she wanted to break free, at first I gripped tight, imposed new rules and higher expectations. I insisted that she turn away from wildness, even in this wild time. Eventually, like Rebecca Snook, I loosened the reins and trusted to fate. Neither approach brought her back. Marissa said she was going toward something I wouldn’t, couldn’t, understand. After a year of trying, I see that she is right. This life she and her friends led was not worse than I imagined, but it was more dangerous than I had wanted to believe. I can describe it, but understanding still eludes me.
Katie Simianer’s dad, Scott, who refused to speak with me about Katie, wrote to make sure I knew that Katie was different from the others. “Katie was on an adventure, to learn and experience life. This was simply one of her adventures that went horribly wrong and she died. . . . She was not a ‘train hopper’ as you state. . . . She was not a homeless person, she was not a lost soul, she had family who loved her and she loved her family.”
Every other parent I spoke with said that. These were not lost souls. They had families who loved them. But for many of them, home had become a place where they couldn’t seem to do anything right, couldn’t handle school or work, and couldn’t interact smoothly with their families. Part of the pull of the rails was the chance to shake off the scowls with a blind act of daring. Even if these kids had homes, they had found a different sense of home on the rails, a place where they didn’t need to know each other’s real names. To them, safety was something they built together, and it might only last a moment. That part of what they believed, I did understand.
For that year and a half Marissa was away, I was locked also in the fear that I had lost her forever. Young people leaving home, including those who go to college, take frightening risks with drugs and alcohol. At a certain point, though, college kids graduate. There is no such ceremony to mark your passage out of New Orleans. Katie, Jonathan, and Anthonie Zaleta, another young man lost in the fire, all told their parents they would return home in 2011, and Melissa had never really left. The longer my daughter was away, the higher the chance was that she would never come back.
When I first got Scott Simianer’s response, I saw his words as those of a father who wanted to seal tight his memory, a fitting way to handle his grief. In the months since, I have come to see his wisdom. Marissa had spent eighteen years with me, and she knew what I valued and expected. When she left, I had to trust that she carried a little piece of me within, and that piece was what I hoped would bring her back. In my powerlessness it was best to think of her not in some squalid squat or alleyway, but on that train pulling out of Mobile in the moonlight. I didn’t want to glamorize this, but I did need peace. As with Katie, it was true to say that Marissa was on an adventure to learn and experience life. Only she could decide when it was time to come home.
When her friend MoMo finally got sober enough, she walked alone the long, hard miles to the Gentilly train yard.
“I hopped on the first thing that moved,” she said. “It headed out over Lake Pontchartrain, the track right over the water, so all you see on both sides is water reflecting the moon and the city. I was dancing in the freight car. Things were going to get better. I could feel it. When we pulled past the next little town there were little punk kids, no more than twelve years old, running along the side of the train yelling at me with their hands up saying, ‘Take me with you! Take me with you!’”
Take me with you, and come back.
Lead photograph: Gerald Herbert / AP Photo
Melissa Martinez photograph: Courtesy of Angel Martinez
Jonathan Guerrero photograph: Courtesy of Karen Guerrero
Funding for this story was provided in part by the users of Spot.us, a nonprofit supporter of independent journalism. For more on this story, including profiles of those killed in the fire, see Danelle Morton’s Web site.
January 01, 2012
40 Min read time