Former Claremonter dies in Oakland warehouse blaze
One of Em Bohlka’s many defining qualities was her willingness to go out of her way to help people. It was a trait recounted again and again by friends and family who knew her best.
Ms. Bohlka was one of the 36 people who lost their lives in the Oakland Ghost Ship fire on December 2. She was remembered as a kind, thoughtful and hilarious soul who was just embarking on a new chapter in her life.
Her father, Jack Bohlka, noted his daughter’s passion for helping poor, oppressed people who were “living on the edges.”
“That’s really a hallmark of her life,” Mr. Bohlka said. “She was a really caring, gentle, kind person. She was very philosophical and thoughtful.”
Ms. Bohlka, 33, grew up in Claremont and attended Bonita High School, eventually moving on to UC Riverside for her bachelor’s degree in English and then Cal Poly Pomona for her master’s degree.
She met Natalie Jahanbani while working at Starbucks in La Verne, and they were married in 2012.
“She just had a sense of wonder at every moment,” Ms. Jahanbani said. “I think this is something people take for granted. She really was insatiable for life and hearing people’s stories, and she embraced the differences among us.”
One of her oldest friends, Kassidy Heal, remembered her as a kind and compassionate soul.
“[She was] never unkind to anyone,” Mr. Heal said. “If she ever hurt someone, she was always quick to fix it and apologize. Her entire life was about self-improvement, being better than she was before.”
Ms. Bohlka and Mr. Heal played music together and had been friends since they were both five years old. Mr. Heal recalled a poem Ms. Bohlka shared with him that was deeply personal and beautiful.
“She always had a way with words, whether written or verbal,” he said. “She could express herself where you could feel what she was writing. We loved her for it.”
John Dodson had been a friend of Ms. Bohlka’s since college, when she approached him because he was wearing a shirt promoting one of her favorite punk bands. They became fast friends, and Em played a vital role in Mr. Dodson’s life.
“She helped me get through college, bad jobs, good jobs, proposing to my wife, planning a wedding and everything in between, all while never asking for anything in return,” Mr. Dodson said. “She was someone I am so glad I got to meet and know personally.”
Ms. Bohlka was also known for her sense of humor.
“What I remember most was how she could make jokes last forever and ever to the point that people would be dry-heaving from laughter,” Mr. Dodson said, relaying that she once wrote an entire rap about the popular video game Skyrim that she couldn’t wait to show him one she finished.
Since July 2015, Ms. Bohlka had been living in Oakland with Ms. Jahanbani and working at High Wire coffee shop in Berkeley. The move to Oakland was a signifier of new beginnings, as Ms. Bohlka came out as transgender shortly thereafter.
Mr. Bohlka remembers when she came out to him while he was in Oakland for a visit. He was only the second person she came out to, the first being Natalie.
“We went out to dinner, which turned into a four-hour dinner conversation,” he said. “I was so happy for her because, just hearing her talk about coming out at last, she was who she was supposed to be.”
In one of their final conversations, Ms. Bohlka relayed to her father how she was dealing with hormone-replacement therapy (HRT) and the changes it was making to her body.
“We had just talked last week and I asked ‘How do you feel?’” he said. “And she said ‘My skin’s getting softer and my hair is getting finer,’ and I said, ‘That’s amazing,’”
But transitioning to her true self was not without its challenges, even in the progressive Bay Area. Mr. Bohlka mentioned a time when a passenger on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) spit on Ms. Bohlka while she was presenting herself as a queer femme.
“It just broke my heart,” Mr. Bohlka said. “She’s a person.”
Life in Oakland was quiet, but Ms. Bohlka and Ms. Jahanbani had decided to part ways in recent months in part because Em wanted to move to New York. Still, Ms. Jahanbani said, they spent every moment together.
Mr. Heal remembered the last time he went up to Oakland to see Ms. Bohlka, three weeks before the fire. They walked throughout the town, and Ms. Bohlka showed him Golden Gate Park and other sights around San Francisco.
“You know, when people lose loved ones, sometimes they have those dreams where they went on this walk and talked, and they wake up from this dream and they have this feeling of their presence,” he said. “It was that dream, but in real life.”
Mr. Heal noted that Ms. Bohlka had “unlovable” tattooed on her chest, and he would always tell her friend it was his least favorite tattoo.
When they two met up in Oakland, Ms. Bohlka, while employing some of her trademark humor, confessed she had experienced a change of heart.
“She then said, ‘You want to know something? It’s my least favorite now too, because I’m seeing how lovable I am,’” Mr. Heal recalled. “But this s—t hurt to put on.”
While the wounds are still fresh, Mr. Bohlka hopes that his daughter’s tragic death, as well as the deaths of other LGBTQ people at the Ghost Ship that night, will shed a new light on the plights of the transgender community.
“This whole thing happened because the trans community, they’re subject to all sorts of bullying and threats and so they have to find places where they feel safe with each other,” he said. “This space where they were having the concert on Friday night was a death trap.”
The day of the catastrophe was like any other, with Ms. Jahanbani and Ms. Bohlka sitting in their home near Lake Merrit, eating string cheese and talking about their day. Ms. Jahanbani planned to stay home and watch a movie, and Ms. Bohlka had been invited by her friend, Donna Kellogg, to a dance party at Ghost Ship. Ms. Kellogg also died in the blaze.
Ms. Jahanbani dropped Ms, Bohlka off at the BART station, and they said their goodbyes. It was the last time she saw her.
“It’s very surreal because it was a day just like any day,” Ms. Jahanbani said. “There were many days like that. The only difference was she never went home.”