This is what death looks like

Ter­ri­fied they wouldn’t es­cape the Camp Fire, some reached for their phones to record how they out­wit­ted death. Watch­ing can be as painful as re­cov­er­ing.

The Mercury News Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - By Ju­lia Prodis Sulek and Matthias Gafni Staff writ­ers

“Noooo. Go on! Go! I’m not dy­ing right here.” — Tamra Fisher, scream­ing in a 25-minute video recorded as she es­caped

PARADISE » A week after the Camp Fire, Tamra Fisher posted a mes­sage on Face­book:

“You may all un­friend me and I wouldn’t blame you,” she wrote, a bit em­bar­rassed by the video she was about to share. “I am that per­son in an emer­gency.” The one who screams, who cries, who curses. Like so many oth­ers who feared they would burn alive that Novem­ber day when smoke blocked the sun and morn­ing looked like night, she hit the record but­ton on her phone as she fled. The record­ing runs — for a full 25 min­utes — with the phone in her hand or stuffed in the car’s cup holder.

In the video, you see the tun­nels of flames, the em­bers snap­ping side­ways along the road, glow­ing as red as the line of brake lights stopped in front of her.

“Move! Move!” she cried. “Oh God. Go! Go! I’m scared. Go! Go! Come on!”

She lays on the horn so long and so hard it wheezes and dies.

Pine nee­dles at the base of her wind­shield ig­nite — her car is catch­ing on fire. “What do I do? What do I do? I don’t want to die!”

Ex­cept for her three dogs pant­ing in the swel­ter­ing back seat, she is alone. No one can hear her. But still she screams.

This is what death must have sounded like in Paradise.

At least 86 peo­ple were killed that Nov. 8 morn­ing when the dead­li­est and most de­struc­tive wild­fire in state his­tory wiped out the Northern

Cal­i­for­nia ridge town of Paradise. The thou­sands who fran­ti­cally fled are now com­ing to terms with the kind of per­sonal trauma that doesn’t fit neatly onto Christ­mas cards and con­fronting a new year where the fu­ture can look as bleak as the ru­ins of their homes.

In its af­ter­math, dozens of videos coursed through so­cial me­dia, each record­ing var­i­ous stages of panic — the faith­ful recit­ing Bi­ble verses, par­ents singing to their fright­ened chil­dren, outof-breath emer­gency work­ers with body cam­eras run­ning through flames.

For some, record­ing these per­ilous mo­ments was an act of adren­a­line-fu­eled op­ti­mism that they would sur­vive to re­play and share their near- death ex­pe­ri­ences on video, a rolling re­as­sur­ance that they out­wit­ted death. For oth­ers, it was a mo­ment of fran­tic fa­tal­ism, as though their pocket-size pieces of metal and glass could take the heat and flames bet­ter than their skin and bones and that their last mo­ments — like a mes­sage in a bot­tle — would be pre­served.

“I don’t know,” Fisher said in an in­ter­view this month. “I had my cam­era out in case this was it. They would find my phone and know what hap­pened.”

Fisher and oth­ers who sur­vived the flames shared their videos with this news or­ga­ni­za­tion and the sto­ries be­hind their es­capes to try to ex­plain: What re­ally hap­pens when you look death in the face? Do you lose a piece of your­self? Can you truly re­cover? And what do you do when you’ve been given a sec­ond chance at life?

The ex­is­ten­tial questions aren’t easy to con­tem­plate when you’re sleep­ing in a friend’s garage and wear­ing some­one else’s clothes and spend­ing hours in line at FEMA cen­ters and mak­ing lists for in­surance com­pa­nies of all your lost pos­ses­sions.

“I’ve lost some of my iden­tity in this,” said Michael Ran­ney, who, along with his wife, Jen­nette, lost their home but saved a neigh­bor’s and recorded bits of the sur­real bat­tle on video. “It’s like a dif­fer­ent life, start­ing over again.”

Man­i­festos of the will to live

Some of the videos recorded that morn­ing are hor­ror films, survival guides and full-throated man­i­festos of the will to live. Each of­fers clues to the sur­vivors’ life sto­ries — and how they might cope with what lies ahead.

In a strange tes­ti­mony to the in­ter­sec­tion of tragedy and tech­nol­ogy, Cal­i­for­ni­ans have the un­for­tu­nate dis­tinc­tion of be­ing able to of­fer plenty of ex­am­ples. Misha Usunov of Danville recorded what he was cer­tain were his fi­nal mo­ments dur­ing last year’s mass shoot­ing that killed 58 peo­ple at a Las Ve­gas con­cert. Bul­lets ping off the as­phalt as he crouches near the bleach­ers. In reg­u­lar re­unions with sur­vivors since, he’s learned a lot about the ef­fects of trauma, recorded or not.

“Gen­er­ally there are two ways peo­ple han­dle it,” he said. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and you cher­ish life on a level you never ex­pe­ri­enced be­fore be­cause you were so close to los­ing it. The flip side is some dwell on it and let it pull them down so hard that it con­sumes them.”

Even be­fore the Camp Fire, Fisher, 49, was frag­ile. She re­cently ended a bad re­la­tion­ship that put a strain on the rest of her fam­ily. Her beloved brother, Larry, had died un­ex­pect­edly a decade ago in his sleep at 45. Over the years, there were times she felt so low, she wished for the same fate. Paradise felt like a prison, a place of pain, loss and un­ful­filled ex­pec­ta­tions.

As she fled the house where she rented a room on Pentz Road — on the eastern edge of town where the fire first hit — she grabbed things she had clung to for com­fort: her brother’s ashes, a gold nugget her grand­fa­ther panned out of nearby Butte Creek, a spe­cial Raggedy Ann doll from her child­hood. She gath­ered up her three el­derly dogs: Lucky who is blind, Sophia who is deaf, and Izzy, the schnau­zer who is tooth­less.

Her pan­icked es­cape would go on for 25 min­utes, stop­ping when her “empty” gas gauge pinged a warn­ing and her car caught fire on Pear­son Road, the east­west con­nec­tor to the main roads out of town. She tried to flag down some­one to help, but “It was every man and woman for them­selves.”

Fi­nally, a stranger stopped — a man who emerged from the smoke in a big white Chevy Sil­ver­ado truck — and opened his door.

Fisher recorded their six ten­der min­utes of their en­counter from the pas­sen­ger seat of his truck, with her dogs also safe in­side. In it, he is as calm as she is dis­traught, an in­ter­ac­tion that would set the stage for heal­ing.

20 sec­onds of hor­ror

As the fire blew over Pear­son Road, it roared onto Edge­wood Lane, a side street just ahead. There, in a field be­hind his house, Travis Wright recorded the hellish land­scape, just after he emerged from “the throat of this mon­ster.” Where Fisher’s video is 25 min­utes of fear, Wright’s is 20 sec­onds of hor­ror. He shows it to peo­ple “just to give them an idea of what I was up against,” he said. But he doesn’t like to watch it for him­self: “It still pretty much plays in my head.”

He sim­ply closes his eyes and hears their screams and feels the heat.

The panoramic video he shot at 11:29 a.m. is dark but for the orange flames crack­ling around him. But look closely, he says, and you can see his all-ter­rain­ve­hi­cle parked on the side of the hill. The worst part is at the end: the sil­hou­ettes of his neigh­bors, Paul and Suzie Ernest, burned and mo­tion­less be­hind a boul­der. He thought they were dead. “It’s kind of messed me up,” he said. The three of them — like so many oth­ers on Edge­wood Lane con­fronted by a dead end to the south and fire to the north — couldn’t es­cape in their ve­hi­cles. Nei­ther could neigh­bors Michael and Jen­nette Ran­ney, who in a bold and des­per­ate at­tempt to save them­selves ended up sav­ing Wright’s house — and record­ing part of their last stand against the firestorm.

Wright and the Ernests had fled on two ATVs. They briefly passed the Ran­neys, who were on foot with two cats in car­ri­ers. There was no way Wright could fit them all on his ATV. Leav­ing them be­hind still haunts him.

Wright and the Ernests raced off to what he thought was their best hope for survival — rock out­crop­pings and low brush among the trails and fields be­hind Wright’s house.

The fire caught up, forc­ing them off their ATVs and be­hind a 6-foot boul­der. Paul cov­ered Suzie and him­self with his coat and took the brunt of the flames. Wright called his wife, Ca­role, who was stuck in grid­lock near her Paradise den­tal of­fice. “I told her I loved her,” Wright said, “and we said our good­byes.” Then it struck. “It was right on me,” Wright said. “I could hear it. It was like a bliz­zard, a jet en­gine all at once, just loud, mostly the air whip­ping around, like a vac­uum suck­ing the air out of my lungs, forc­ing me to ex­hale. It was so not nat­u­ral.”

As the fire rolled over, Wright heard the Ernests scream. He leaped up and jumped through the flames to the other side. An im­age of 9/11 flashed in his head — of the peo­ple jump­ing out the win­dows of the World Trade Cen­ter tow­ers, come what may.

After dart­ing from one boul­der to the next, he fi­nally looked around and thought, “I’m alive.” But the Ernests had gone silent and mo­tion­less. He didn’t want to lock.

“I was afraid of what I was go­ing to find.”

Over­whelmed by the dev­as­ta­tion and need­ing to catch his breath, he de­cided to turn on his cam­era and pan the re­mains of the black and burn­ing land­scape. You can barely see the Ernests crouch­ing be­hind the rock.

Click­ing off the cam­era, Wright ap­proached his friends. He heard them

“What do I do? What do I do? I don’t want to die.” ... “Oh my god, don’t stop. It’s so hot. It’s so hot.” ... “These are peo­ple’s homes. Oh my god, peo­ple. I am so sorry. These homes are like (ex­ple­tive), they are gone, they’re gone.”

groan, saw them stir and reached for Paul’s hand. The skin slid off.

He cooled them with ice packs from their cooler, then promised to re­turn with help.

“They didn’t want me to leave,” he said. “Suzie kept say­ing, ‘ Please come back.’ ”

That haunts him, too. An hour later, he re­turned with two fire­fight­ers on the back of his ATV. They car­ried the cou­ple gen­tly, Wright said, cradling them like ba­bies.

Pis­tol against an en­emy brigade

Back at Wright’s house, Michael and Jen­nette Ran­ney were shield­ing them­selves from the swirling in­ferno on the back of the house, built with fire-re­sis­tant ce­ment sid­ing. For 1 minute and 33 sec­onds, Jen­nette records the amaz­ingly clear-headed oper­a­tion that saved the Wrights’ house. Their own house had al­ready burned to the ground.

They al­ready had sur­vived one neardeath mo­ment at the bot­tom of the hill, when the flames shot three times higher than the trees and the sky rained bombs of flam­ing bark. A creek where they had sought refuge was only a trickle. “Are we go­ing to die?” Jen­nette asked her hus­band.

“She was, like, ready to say a cou­ple of Hail Marys and close her eyes,” Ran­ney said.

“I looked at her. I wanted to save her,” he said. “I didn’t want to die in a fire.”

In the video, Michael stands against the firestorm with a gar­den hose — like a pis­tol against an en­emy brigade. Winds whipped up bon­fires around the house. The cats whine in their car­ri­ers. Michael barks an or­der: “Can you get that fire out be­hind you?” The cam­era turns sky­ward as Jen­nette trips, fall­ing back­ward. Michael pulls her up, then you hear the “stomp, stomp, stomp” of putting it out.

It was a frac­tion of their 90-minute stand dous­ing rain gut­ters with gar­den hoses and crack­ing off sid­ing to pull out smok­ing in­su­la­tion. Bed­room win­dows ex­ploded in the heat.

“We weren’t try­ing to save a house to save a house,” Michael said later. “We were try­ing to save a house to save us.”

It was a feel­ing of tri­umph that didn’t last long. Ev­ery­thing Ran­ney held dear, his vintage stereo col­lec­tion, his­toric min­ing claims and fa­vorite tools were all de­stroyed when his own house in­cin­er­ated.

They are liv­ing in a 17foot do­nated trailer now, with their two out­door cats in­side. For the first month, they moved it from one Chico park­ing lot to the next, run­ning off thieves and seek­ing out show­ers. When they were re­cently re­buffed at one shel­ter by an ornery vol­un­teer — who harshly de­manded they wash their hands be­fore they en­tered — they both broke down in tears.

“You don’t know what we’ve been through,” Ran­ney told her. “Sev­eral of our neigh­bors were killed. We’ve lost ev­ery­thing but the clothes on our backs.’’

He couldn’t un­der­stand it. “We went from re­spectable cit­i­zens to fire trash. What hap­pened?”

He has the video to re­mind him of his brav­ery, to bring back his con­fi­dence.

Wright had re­turned to his home, shocked that it was still stand­ing and re­lieved that the Ran­neys were still liv­ing. But he is still strug­gling with guilt — that he left the Ran­neys as he sped off, and that he sur­vived with lit­tle more than singed hair. The Ran­neys feel only grat­i­tude for Wright and his well-built house that helped pro­tect them. But the ex­pe­ri­ence also has been hum­bling.

They plan to move the trailer to their empty prop­erty and start again. The Wrights have of­fered the Ran­neys their house for any­thing they need.

The Ernests are still re­cov­er­ing at UC Davis hos­pi­tal in Sacra­mento. Their son, Jessee, said his par­ents owe their lives to Wright.

“He had a huge part in the fact that they even made it out alive,” he said.

Wright, a tech­nol­o­gist who spe­cial­izes in CT scans, was never one to reach out to strangers, to tell his sto­ries. But the fire — and his new bond with the Ran­neys — has seemed to strip him of his shy­ness.

“I kind of said, I don’t care,” Wright said. “I’m go­ing to be more open.”

Wright has some heady emo­tional chal­lenges ahead, he knows. He’s afraid to take his boots off for fear of an­other fire. His wife is afraid for him to leave her side. But their house is still stand­ing — the only one left on Edge­wood Lane. It’s a solid foun­da­tion for what may come. And for that, he is grate­ful.

A rub­ber band around her wrist

When Tamra Fisher sees how other Camp Fire sur­vivors re­sponded that day, she asks her­self: “How are they so calm? Why did I scream like that?”

“I feel very weak, see­ing all those peo­ple’s videos,” she says.

She used to be the kind of per­son to crank up the mu­sic in her car — and if she was the pas­sen­ger, to stick her feet out the win­dow. Now she’s still too scared to drive.

Her ther­a­pist told her to wear a rub­ber band on her wrist and snap it every time a dark thought en­tered her head. She snapped it so of­ten, it stung. “It wasn’t help­ing.”

Her sis­ter, Cindy Hoover, who lost her home in the fire, still wears hers. The same ther­a­pist told her to snap it every time she wor­ried about Tamra.

Coun­selors are ex­tra busy in Chico now, help­ing trau­ma­tized victims re­al­ize they are safe now, that the fire is be­hind them, that if they work on their men­tal health and tell their sto­ries, post-trau­matic stress might not set­tle in so deep.

The house Fisher shared sur­vived, but the stor­age shed in the back­yard with her im­por­tant things was de­stroyed. She’s try­ing to look at the fire as a fresh start, that maybe the bad mem­o­ries in her past were burned away in the fire.

“I feel ter­ri­ble,” she said, “but I also feel cleansed.”

Thanks to the stranger in the white truck, her worst fears weren’t re­al­ized.

She re­united with him re­cently in the ru­ins of Paradise, close to where they met.

She didn’t rec­og­nize Larry Laczko at first. He wasn’t wear­ing the ball cap or glasses he wore when he saved her. But she rec­og­nized that voice, the one that told her to take deep breaths, that they would es­cape, that she would be OK. “I’m sorry,” she said, hug­ging him. “You’re do­ing just fine,” he said, the same way he did over and over that dark day.

“This is the voice. This is the voice that is so calm­ing,” she told him. “I was so thank­ful for you. You were the only one who wanted to stop. You telling me your name was Larry, and I thought, OK, my brother is watch­ing over me.” “I opened my door,” Larry said. “Trust me,” she said. “You opened more than a door for me.”

Like the town of Paradise — where power lines are be­ing re­strung and the post of­fice and the Feather River Health Cen­ter just re­opened — those who came clos­est to death are start­ing to re­store their lives.

For Fisher, part of that re­cov­ery meant find­ing the car she aban­doned — to see if there was any­thing left of the things she held most dear. She found it days be­fore Christ­mas in a lot not far from Pear­son Road, where all the metal car­casses had been towed. What had been a bright yel­low VW Bee­tle was re­duced to a burned­out heap of metal.

She leaned in and poked around. There was no sign of her Raggedy Ann. She didn’t ex­pect to find her brother’s ashes, but she lit up when she found his ring, class of ’69, in the rim of what had been the VW’s spare tire. Then she plunged her hands back into what was left and felt some­thing small, some­thing hard.

Some­thing else cher­ished had sur­vived. “This is it,” she shouted, pour­ing bot­tled water over the muddy trin­ket, wash­ing it clean of black goo.

Her grand­fa­ther’s gold nugget glinted in the sun­shine.

ALL PHONE SCREEN PHOTOS COURTESY TAMRA FISHER; PHOTOS BY KARL MONDON — STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Tamra Fisher, who found her car weeks after the fire, posted a chill­ing 25-minute-long video of her screams and curses as she es­caped.

Travis Wright, right, with wife, Ca­role, recorded a hellish 20 sec­onds of video, but says he can’t watch it. “It pretty much plays in my head.”

Jen­nette Ran­ney, right, recorded one minute and 33 sec­onds of video of the bat­tle she and her hus­band, Michael, fought to save the Wrights’ home.

KARL MONDON — STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Larry Laczko was the stranger in the white Sil­ver­ado who res­cued Fisher and her three dogs when her VW caught fire. “You were the only one who wanted to stop,” she told him later.

Tamra Fisher recorded sev­eral videos as she evac­u­ated Paradise in her Volk­swa­gen Bee­tle, the long­est a 25-minute chunk with video go­ing in and out as her phone moves around. She drives in a long line of cars to­ward what they all hope is safety. Fisher, driv­ing with her three dogs, screams, cries, gasps at the hellish fire all around and begs for cars in front of her to keep mov­ing. At one point, the frus­tra­tion of Fisher and driv­ers around her boils over in a marathon ca­coph­ony of car horns. Even­tu­ally, pine nee­dles at the base of Fisher’s wind­shield ig­nite and set her car ablaze, forc­ing her to aban­don it. She catches a ride out of dan­ger with Larry Laczko. As she rides in Laczko’s truck, they pass her VW, now aflame, far right. To see the video, go to www.mer­curynews.com.

KARL MONDON — STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Michael and Jen­nette Ran­ney, left, lost their home but saved the house of their neigh­bors, Ca­role and Travis Wright. The cou­ples re­united this month.

KARL MONDON — STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Eighty-six crosses are in­stalled along Sky­way Road in Paradise, one for each life lost in the Camp Fire, the dead­li­est wild­fire in Cal­i­for­nia his­tory.

KARL MONDON— STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

De­spite ev­ery­thing lost, Tamra Fisher found her grand­fa­ther’s gold nugget buried in­side the wreck­age of her burned out car.

COURTESY OF THE ERNEST FAM­ILY

Paul and Suzie Ernest are re­cov­er­ing at the UC Davis hos­pi­tal from se­vere burns after try­ing to es­cape the blaze on an all-ter­rain ve­hi­cle.

KARL MONDON — STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Cindy Hoover, left, and her sis­ter, Tamra Fisher, re­turned to see the dev­as­ta­tion. They each wore a rub­ber band to snap every time they had a worry or dark thought.

In video shot by Jen­nette Ran­ney, Michael Ran­ney wields a hose in a last bid to save the Wrights’ house.

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