Oakland fire victim's heartbroken love recovers treasured photo online

A luminous memory surfaces through tragedy as a Facebook search reunites a grieving woman with an extraordinary photo of her with her boyfriend.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
2 min read

Saya Tomioka's Facebook history is full of lighthearted updates showing yoga poses, dogs looking out from a window and cute selfies with her boyfriend Griffin Madden. Everything changes on December 3, when she sends an all-caps plea for information about Madden and a set of friends who were seen in the Ghost Ship warehouse building in Oakland, California, before a devastating fire consumed the space.

Madden was later identified as one of the victims. In grief, Tomioka looked inward and returned to one of her happiest memories with Madden. It was June 16, 2015, her first visit to Times Square in New York City.

Tomioka writes on Facebook: "I remember tears swelling my eyes because the city was so beautiful and amidst all the lights, I got to look at the brightest light of all, my sweetie. I cried, and we kissed. Some random photographer captured this very moment, this very kiss...I never got his name, and he just simply showed us the single beautiful snap shot that he was able to capture."


Griffen Madden and Saya Tomioka together in New York.

Arken Avan

Tomioka's message includes a request to help her find the photographer and the photo. "I don't even know if it's possible, but please share this status if you think it is," she writes. That plea spread around Facebook and appeared in feeds with large followings, including that of Bay Area news anchor Frank Somerville of KTVU.

Professional photographer Arken Avan heard about the appeal through other people on Facebook. At first, Avan wasn't sure he was the one who took the photo, but he says it wasn't hard to locate it once he knew the exact date. Avan keeps two years of pictures on hand in his street-photo archive, which numbers in the hundreds of thousands.

Tomioka shared the photo and penned a moving Facebook message addressed to her lost love.

"I have been hoping for a miracle, a glimpse of your light back into my life. With the infinite help from our families, friends, and strangers, I finally found you," she writes. She tells the story of their visit to Times Square, the heartbreak of life without Madden and the strength she still finds in the love they shared.

The photo captures a beautiful moment. Tomioka and Madden holds hands, their faces close, a smudge of red lipstick on his cheek, the busy world of Times Square frozen and blurred behind them. Says Avan, "I hope this image brings some peace to her and she will keep that as a memory forever about his love."