Nikki Pack

3/16/87 – 12/28/10

Nikki Pack talked fast, so fast that when she got excited, it was hard to understand what she was saying.  She was spontaneous too, ready to go off to the next adventure at the slightest suggestion of fun and, according to friends, a great traveling companion. It was pretty hard to dampen her spirits no matter how rough things got on the road. “Everybody who came in contact with her loved her,” said her father Joe Pack.

This restless search for adventure was part of what made school so hard for Nikki, her father said. She loved to read and was rarely without a book, but sitting in class all day was tough on her, as it was for many of the kids she befriended.

Joe was in the Army and the family moved often in the years that he and Nikki’s  mom Michele were married. They lived in Germany, upstate New York and Hawaii, which is where the marriage fell apart in 1996.

Joe took Nikki and her sister Sarah with him to upstate New York, where he had been transferred, leaving their mom to complete basic training for the Air National Guard. Joe was stationed in Pennsylvania at the National War College in 2000. Around this time, Nikki tried out the goth look and her grades, which were never great, fell even further. “She was bored,” Joe said. “She didn’t do her homework or her school work. The people she found on the streets, the homeless kids, were much more interesting to her.”

When Joe was transferred to Korea in 2002, Michele took the children. When Michele moved to Virginia to marry again 2003, she took Sarah along, but left Nikki with her grandmother. Michele’s marriage didn’t last long, and in 2003 she was called up to reserve duty for the war in Iraq. Nikki dropped out of high school.

In 2005 Nikki went to visit her dad in Korea, where he had married a Korean woman.  For a time Nikki taught English there, but she was fired for being tardy too often. Nikki wanted to join the army just like her mom and dad, although Joe never saw it as a good fit for her.  High school graduation is a requirement to enlist. When Nikki took the test to see what areas she needed to study, the pre-test said she was strong in all subjects.  She took the test soon thereafter and was awarded the GED.

In the fall of 2008 Nikki enlisted in the Army and started basic training.  “I begged her to stick it out, get some money for college,” Joe said. “I thought maybe there was a chance for her there.  She seemed into it for a while. She named her rifle. But she only lasted three weeks and then she had to go.”

Nikki, and the other young women who left basic training with her, went to Texas and some other places before they made their way back to Pittsburgh. Nikki got a job in a sandwich shop. She lived with the family for a while, but the world of her friends was much more appealing to her.

Her aunt Lisa Barca tried her best to understand why Nikki was so attracted to life on the streets.  One evening she decided to go see for herself.  “I got all shiny, put on my mini skirt and went on date, then met her under a bridge,” Lisa said. “I bought them breakfast.  Sixty-five dollars later, there was a hill we were going to climb up and her friend Sonya had no shoes.  When we got to the top, they were laying on the ground and it was raining. We were like kids. Fun, carefree. No worries. You don’t have to be anywhere at any time.  When I got home and looked at myself in the mirror I hadn’t been this dirty since I was a child.”

In late 2008, Nikki got pregnant. Her time with the father of the child had been brief and she didn’t want him involved. Her father begged her to put the baby up for adoption. “I hoped that she would change her ways but deep down I knew,” Joe said. “I told her that I knew in my heart that she was going to fail, but please prove me wrong.”

After Jacob was born on August 30, 2009, Nikki was with him for about four months before the family decided childcare wasn’t for Nikki. “I know she loved her baby,” Lisa said. “But they don’t think past tonight’s party.” Her grandmother got guardianship rights over Jacob so they could manage his care in case Nikki decided to leave town.  “We needed to be able to take him to the doctor,” Lisa noted. “I don’t think Nikki had any plans for a future. I don’t think she had any plans for a home.”

In late October 2010 the band Profane Sass played Pittsburgh as part of its tour of the east coast.  Nikki loved the music and offered to go with them to play washboard in the band.  “We had a seat open in the car,” said Kiwi. “We talked it over. Everyone loved Nikki. She was one of the most accepting people, and always rocking out.  We voted and decided to bring her along.”

When the band hit New Orleans on December 1, the warehouse wasn’t yet open.  Nikki met Sammy Thompson a few days after Profane Sass arrived in New Orleans and they hit it off immediately.  They worked together to open the warehouse and the members of Profane Sass stayed in the warehouse before leaving town December 20 to play a gig in Reno.

“It was an awesome December, until it started getting cold,” said Nikki’s friend Ryan Williams, who was in New Orleans at the same time as Nikki. “They had fire inside the warehouse multiple nights. No matter what we did, we couldn’t escape the cold.”

Everyone loved staying in the warehouse, even though it was hard to battle the cold. “We woke up to the sound of trains crashing together,” Kiwi said. “Everyone had slept on trains anyway. We all loved that sound.”

Ryan said in that way, Nikki was like a lot of his friends. “She wanted to travel and how she traveled was by playing music,” he said. “I don’t think she had everything figured out, but I wouldn’t say that most people do. She always knew that she could come back to Pittsburgh and see her family, then go out again.”

Joe found out about the warehouse fire from a text he got from Nikki’s mom Michele. When he got laid off of his job in February, he and his wife went to New Orleans to visit the site of the warehouse fire. “There is no way to cope with her loss,” he said. He tries to be tough and not cry about Nikki, but certain things always set him off.  When he had custody of his daughters, they used to play the Elton John song “Rocket Man” in the car when he was taking them home from day care. “I can’t sing at all but when the kids were in the car, I’d scream the ‘Rocket Man’ part and they would crack up. Now when I hear it, it makes me cry,” he said.

He finds some consolation in taking care of Nikki’s son Jacob. For a time after Nikki’s death Joe fought with his former in laws in court to get the right to see Jacob a few days a week after Nikki’s  mom and grandmother filed for full legal custody of Jacob. Joe takes care of Jacob every other weekend and every Thursday.  “He looks just like Nikki, and he’s fun, just like his mother” Joe said. “I’m so grateful that he’s here. Now I couldn’t put him up for adoption if I had to. I love him to death. We all do.”