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Local woman dies in New Orleans warehouse fire

Pittsburgher Nikki Pack, a self-described "hobo" whose friends called her Nurse Nikki, is apparently among those who died in a New Orleans warehouse fire Dec. 27. She was 23 years old.

"She wanted to go someplace warm, and she loved New Orleans," says Pack's friend Giovanna Garafalo, of Polish Hill. "She hated Pittsburgh winters."

Keeping warm was what Pack and others were reportedly doing in the warehouse, which was located in New Orleans' Ninth Ward, according to Reuters News Service. They were burning trash in a can for heat when the fire began; two of the warehouse's occupants escaped the blaze, but eight others perished.

Some media accounts referred to the group as "homeless"; online discussions have used harsher terms -- labels Garafalo calls "disgusting."

"They weren't homeless. It was the life they chose to lead. … She and I grew up together wanting to live that lifestyle, riding the rails," says Garafalo. "It was a whole subculture that we loved -- train-riding street kids. Traveling was her thing and she had friends everywhere she went. She was just a beautiful soul."

Local woman dies in New Orleans warehouse fire
Courtesy of Michele Pack

On her MySpace profile, Pack describes herself as a hobo: She had been traveling the country by freight train since she was 17. As of press time, her body has not been identified by the New Orleans coroner's office. But her mother, Michele Pack, and several friends have confirmed that Nikki was in the building at the time of the fire.

"Her friend Adam [Staniszewski] was down there at the same time, and one of the people who got out said Nikki was inside," says Michele Pack. "No one has seen or heard from her since then -- and we would have heard from her by now."

Like Garafalo, Pack says "it's horrible to label" the people in the warehouse. "These kids were amazing and would give you the shirt off their back. Even now her friends, who don't have money, are calling to ask what they can do to help."

Reached by phone in New Orleans, Staniszewski says Pack and the other squatters in the warehouse had cleaned the structure out, and were turning it into a safe, clean communal-living space.

"She was really happy," he says. "She met a lot of people and touched a lot of lives. The people she's met down here and everywhere are really suffering over her loss."

Pack says her daughter has not been officially identified mainly because of a bureaucratic mix-up involving medical records held by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Nikki Pack spent a short time in the army, and her parents were in the military.

"We were always moving to someplace new," Michele Pack recalls. "I truly believe that's where her love of travel came from."

Nikki Pack announced her trip to New Orleans right after Thanksgiving; she intended to head out on a tour with friends who were in a band. They first headed to Philadelphia and by the first week of December she was in Louisiana.

When she was in Pittsburgh, Nikki Pack worked at the Bloomfield Sandwich Shop and shared an apartment with roommates. "She had a home. She had people who loved her," her mother says.

After learning of Pack's death, friends met at a favorite local hangout, the Rock Room in Polish Hill, and toasted Pack with Pabst Blue Ribbon, her favorite beer.

Her mother says she was first called "Nurse" by a rapper who referred to his female fans by the title. But for some reason the name just stuck.

Mama Ros, who owns the Bloomfield Sandwich Shop, says the name held because Pack was the one who took care of everyone.

"If one of the kids got hurt she'd patch them up. She always came in here looking for peroxide and bandages," she says. "She was tough on the outside but she had a soft gooey middle on the inside."

It was Pack's personality inside and out, says Mama Ros, that made her a joy to be around.

"She was such a free spirit that she reminded me of me when I was younger," says Ros. "It was great to have her around. She was my Peter Pan, my Tinkerbell, rolled into one.

"Every time she'd head out for one of her trips I'd always tell her: 'Smile sweetly, sing loudly and sail smoothly.'"

The day Pack left, Ros says, Pack told her, "Don't fill my spot, I'm coming back."

"I told her, 'Honey, you're not coming back. You're going down there, you're going to fall in love with the place and not come back.'

"I just had that feeling that I wouldn't be seeing her again," Ros recalls. "I just can't believe that this is the reason why."

Besides her friends and mother, Nikki Pack is survived by her father, Joel Pack, a sister and a 16-month-old son. Funeral services for Pack have not yet been scheduled.

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