October 20, 1991 began…well…strangely.
I was in a recently rented apartment with my college roommate and her sister. We awoke late and I wanted to cook some breakfast before the football game. I had planned a glorious brunch, football, and a day of studying. I have no idea what my roommate and her sister planned because, though we had roomed together in the dorms and moved in together for our sophomore year, we didn’t hang out much. We didn’t talk much. We each bought our own groceries and cleaned our own halves of the apartment and just sort of coexisted.
Starting around 10:30 am I heard sirens. Weird, since we lived at the liminal space between an open, grassy area and a freeway. We were surrounded by a horseshoe of trees and grasses, bounded by a concrete tunnel thought the hill at one side, and a freeway along the other. There weren’t many houses nearby, so the sirens were strange.
So were the popping sounds of cars backfiring. I didn’t understand those. Lots of backfires in the tunnel this morning, I thought, as I looked out the window. The sky was black with smoke.
Hmmm. Someone’s barbequeing at 10am? Must be tailgating for the game I thought.
Obviously one of the most stupid humans ever to live, I ignored the sirens and the popping sounds of eucalyptus trees exploding in the fire, and I poached egg whites in a cheddar cheese sauce. Because eggs and sourdough need cheese. It’s the law.
At some point, my roommate’s sister looked out the living room window onto the balcony and asked aloud what was going on. The sky was still a swirling black. And as we looked north along the dry hillside that constituted our view, we saw flames. We ran into my bedroom, which was further along the hill. By the time we got there, the whole hill was ablaze and we could feel the heat through the window.
Get dressed, I said.
They did. I stayed and stared. Bad move.
I grabbed my purse and slipped on sandals. We walked out into the common hallway and saw our neighbors similarly transfixed by the view out their balcony window. I heard them say, “As long as it doesn’t catch that tree, we’ll be fine.” We blew past and went toward the elevator.
In case of fire use stairs not elevator, I intoned. We pushed down the stairs and my roommate shoved open the stairwell door into the garage. The smoke was so thick we gagged, and I pulled the door closed. My roommate had decided to take her scooter to safety. Her sister and I decided to take the other stairs.
We went upstairs again and ran through the halls to the fire escape. When I opened the door we could see the trees, planted to decorate the fire escape, were all ablaze. I pulled the door closed and dug through my purse. I handed my roommate’s sister a pair of sunglasses.
Put these on in case there are flying embers, I said.
[Allow me to pause and say I know I’m ludicrous. But this is what happened and you can’t be a rule-following, practical, overstuffed-purse-toting, dork of a college student without getting some goddamned props 20 years later for keeping your roommate’s sister’s eyes (and your own) safe from burning embers. Spare sunglasses. Write that down.]
We hurried down the hot stairs and reached the bottom. I thought I was going to be relieved. Firefighters. Phew. That means everything’s okay, right?
He had his hose trained on the hillside, and he looked terrified. I have never seen a professional look more like a frightened child in my life. I knew we were definitely not okay. So much for reassuring us. He was too busy trying to stay alive. (See the 11:30-11:45 am timestamp here where the firefighters abandon their positions right about now).
We ran as far as we could but had to stop at the freeway. There was a long line of cars trying to get out to the freeway, but some of them were on fire. We were confused. My roommate met us here, explaining she couldn’t get her scooter out. We all decided to hitchhike.
If I get in a car with a stranger, my mother will kill me.
Some very nice people drove us through Oakland. I remember only a few specifics: The sun was red. Everyone was going to church. The traffic was terrible. I will never in my life forget how surreal it felt. I thought I had fallen into a Dahli painting.
I called our house when we got to a friend’s house. (This is before cell phones, people.) Busy signal. I called my mom. Everything’s okay, but there’s a fire. My house is gone, I sobbed.
“Oh, honey,” she said, “I heard about that fire. I’m sure your house is fine. Hang on…that’s the call waiting….your uncle just called and told me about the fire. I’m watching on tv now. I’m so sorry.”
I don’t remember much of the rest of the day. My boyfriend showed up with camping kitchen utensils. Not sure how that would help, since everyone except me still had a kitchen. What I really needed was a bra, truth be told, because I was still in my jammies and VERY uncomfortable about not being, um, fully dressed.
My dad and stepmom had been driving cross country to come see my new apartment.
They took me clothes shopping instead. FEMA and the Red Cross set up tons of booths on campus and we got our books replaced and some money for food.
My roommate got mono and went home for the semester. I moved into a frat house that generously offered to let me stay. It was disgusting and uncomfortable but they were insanely nice to me. I lived in a haze, rarely ate, and somehow functioned. The University offered the extremely rare chance to drop a class without penalty. I dropped music and kept organic chemistry.
Life goes on for all but the 25 people who died. I still remember stories of those who didn’t make it. You don’t need those images in your mind, but I still feel graphic descriptions I read when combing the news for friends’ names. Every day came, despite the fire, like the one before, with sunshine and too many people and cars and unceasing noise. Days just kept coming.
A year later I had pretty terrible PTSD. And each year is easier. My long-term terror at the sight of fires eventually subdued to a simple avoidance of flame. I no longer have nightmares or panic attacks. I have driven past the old apartment a few times. I can look at a few photos without panicking, though I can’t click links to video of that day. (I asked someone to preview this video, and it includes footage of the fire behind our building.)
I’ve heard there are events today: memorials for those who died, celebrations for those who’ve rebuilt. But I can’t go today. I just can’t do that yet. I’m not ready. I have my clump of molten pennies, salvaged from somewhere around where we lived. Sorry, other survivors, if I took your pennies. We all had a change pile, and it all fused. Hope you found some, too, when they finally let us go back. I have a really close friend, now, in that roommate with whom I had just coexisted. And I think somewhere I still have a coffee mug with a clump of concrete fused to it. It’s a dorky, cartoon teddy bear mug, but the chunk of building glommed onto it makes it seem edgier. Like punk rock watercolor bears who got so drunk they can’t remember how they got fused with concrete. But they’re stuck with it now.
A big ol’ concrete scar that marks us for life and makes us remember that, well, not everyone’s lucky enough to see a dark line on their history and say, “that’s the day I almost died. But I didn’t and I’m here, so let’s get going.”
[And now my PSA: Please trim the greenery near your house. Please have an emergency bag packed with id, extra money or credit card, spare glasses, any meds you take, and a thumb drive with all your photos. And please update your insurance policy. Boring, true. Useful, though.]