“A mother, a daughter, a friend”: A memorial poster for 31-year-old Brianna Gayle Combash, decorated with that message, hangs by the West Berkeley tracks where she was killed last week, struck by an Amtrak train.
Combash, a Berkeley resident, died Tuesday, March 27, near Gilman and Second streets. Police were called to the area shortly before 10 p.m. for a report of a cyclist who had been hit by a train. Combash was pronounced dead at the scene.
According to her Facebook page, Combash went to Berkeley High and Berkeley City College, though she originally was from Laguna Hills, in Orange County. She leaves behind a 6-year-old son.
Mena Enibu-a told Berkeleyside on Monday night that Combash had been like a daughter to her; the young woman was at one time in a serious relationship with Enibu-a’s son, and they had a little boy together. Enibu-a described Combash as a friendly, caring, outgoing woman who always loved to have people around her. She had a passion for practical jokes, and addressed everyone she met as “friend.”
“She loved people. That’s what she was known for,” said Enibu-a. “That, and her big smile.”
Enibu-a said Combash was “always ready to help”: “If somebody needed something, she was always willing to see what she could do about it.”
Combash went by the nickname “Big Bird.” The reason why was obvious to anyone who met her: She stood 6 foot 3 and wore a size 13 in women’s shoes. And her personality was as big as her frame. She wore bright colors, and often dyed her hair to showcase different looks, sometimes pink, blond, fuchsia or red. Wigs were also a part of her repertoire.
Enibu-a said Combash had been trying since 2011 to get her own shoe business off the ground. It started when she had a hard time finding shoes her size in shops. So she designed them herself, and ordered them online. She called her brand “Amazonian,” Enibu-a said, “because she said that represented her and other people who needed the bigger-sized shoes.” Combash was excited about launching her own business, and there are indications she at one time had a website showing off the shoes she made. It is no longer active, however.
At one point, Combash lived in Las Vegas with her boyfriend and Enibu-a. According to a profile on casting360.com, during that time she was hoping to get into acting. Enibu-a said, as she understood it, Combash had registered for classes at Berkeley City College but may not have been able to attend them.
Enibu-a, who now lives in Idaho, said she’s still trying to make sense of what might have led to Combash’s death. Several versions of the story have reached her, but no one explanation has been confirmed. And the reality of the situation has been slow to sink in, she said.
“She’s still young,” she said, of Combash. “This was a really hectic time when she was trying to accomplish a lot of things.”
Friends, including some who have lived outside on Berkeley streets, have shared memories of Combash this past week on social media. She went out of her way to help others, they said, and she loved listening to music. “I’m gonna miss her coming in the dollar store on Gilman with her loud ol radio jammin,” wrote a woman calling herself “MiKa B NiCe.”
Close friend Chaos Harris wrote a poem in memory of Combash: “Seein’ me writin’ this you would laugh,” it reads, in part, “but you brightened up my life like a lightning flash.”
Wrote Raquel Williamson: “I will never forget how much love she had to give.”
According to the coroner’s office, Combash had no permanent home address, and some news reports have identified her as homeless. Enibu-a said she thought Combash stayed with friends, though her living situation wasn’t always clear. The investigation into Combash’s death is ongoing, and limited information was available from the coroner’s office Monday night.
Combash herself had written recently on Facebook of having trouble finding enough money to pay rent and, another time, needing help to get to the hospital. But many of her posts featured her young son, beaming: photos and videos from when he was a baby; her excitement, in November, about his sixth birthday party.
Writing online in the days after Combash died, one friend, TJ King, said he had been disappointed people hadn’t “even made the effort to come out of their tents … to even pick up the pieces of her bike” still scattered on the ground after the collision. He posted video of the many tents near the tracks where people have been living in increasing numbers over the past year, and described the situation as one that is worsening: “it’s eating everyone we knew alive,” he wrote. King also said someone had gone through Combash’s bag after she was killed: “Disgusted,” he wrote. “This is why I hate the drug scene in Berkeley.”
“I’ve been homeless,” wrote King, who also went to Berkeley High, according to his Facebook page. “I’ve been there and back.… I’m sorry I couldn’t do more.”
He wrote, of Combash: “She always tried to comfort her friends” even when it was “seriously uncomfortable.”
Combash’s mother, Berkeley resident Wendy Strong, wrote on Facebook that she had been washing her face late Wednesday night when she heard a loud knock at the door. Authorities had come to give her the terrible news.
“Brianna is dead! BRIANNA IS DEAD!” she wrote, less than an hour after the visit. “My poor, girl… GOT HIT BY A TRAIN. She’s dead. Maybe she’s at peace now.”
Court records show that Combash had been arrested several times in Alameda County since 2004, but only for minor offenses. Strong wrote online that Combash had struggled with drug addiction, and shared her regrets that her grandson would never have the chance “to see Mommy doinh [sic] better.”
Strong and Combash had been close when her daughter was young, she wrote in a more recent post, though their relationship was strained later in life. One early challenge they faced together was described in a 1994 article in the Los Angeles Times. Strong, a single mother, believed Combash, then 7, had a learning disability. But a federal court ruling stood in the way of an IQ test that might have helped diagnose the problem, the LA Times reported. The Associated Press also picked up the story, reporting that Strong was considering classifying Combash as white — rather than using her listed race of black — so she would be allowed to take an IQ test and get the help she needed. (The federal ruling had focused on findings that IQ tests were not accurate measures to assess black children.)
Strong wrote on Facebook on Monday that she is hoping to have a potluck-style memorial service for her daughter April 14 at Covenant Church, 2618 San Pablo Ave., in Berkeley.
And Combash’s brother, Evan Strong, set up a fundraiser online he said will help pay for his sister’s burial costs. It has raised nearly $1,800 in four days and has exceeded its goal.
According to Amtrak, the train that struck Combash was a San Joaquins train that had come from Bakersfield and was set to reach its terminus in Oakland just before 10 p.m. The collision took place between the Richmond and Emeryville stations. There were 23 passengers on board at the time, said Marc Magliari, an Amtrak spokesman. No passengers or crew were hurt as a result of the impact, but the schedules of four other trains were affected by the collision, he said.