Excerpt from the book by local authors


October 9, 2017, 3:46 am

Burning embers, some the size of a fist, scattered in the air as two women pulled off heavy wooden doorknobs. They will not budge. The women shouted. They bombed the windows. They pointed at the elderly residents inside, pleaded with them to open the door, their fingers darting toward the brass knobs. From afar, a propane tank exploded, creating winds close to hurricane force that stopped their cries for help.

The electricity went out, except for the dim emergency lights illuminating the halls and casting a faint glare on the faces of the elderly lining up in the hallway. Most of them were in shock, having just been pushed out of bed by strangers with glowing flashlights or cell phones. Some wore robes or slippers while others reached the hall barefoot with only a sheet covering their semi-naked bodies. No one moved in the misty hallway to let the women in.

Kathy Allen and Melissa Langals were locked up, and about twenty elderly men and women—half in wheelchairs, half seated on pedestrians—were locked inside, unable to help themselves. Their home, a luxurious living and memorial facility, was in the way of a rapidly approaching giant firestorm, which would be among the most destructive and deadly in the nation’s history. At that moment, flames were already devouring the northeastern side of the rectangular building that those residents called home.

The women did not have a key or pass to the facility. Those who did, or those who would have driven visitors into the palatial complex of plaster walls and red-tiled ceilings, long ago fled in vans or personal cars full of other residents – or not at all. Cathy and Melissa were neither employees, nor first responders, and had known each other for less than an hour. The only thing they have in common, besides having a family member living in Villa Capri, is the paralyzed conviction that no one is coming to help. They were alone.

Cathy and Melissa looked at the faces of the elderly lining up in the hallway. Fourteen people were residents of a memory care unit, admitted with varying degrees of Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. …Upstairs, he was still stationed on the second floor overlooking the lobby, six elderly people in wheelchairs waited. One of these was Virginia Gunn, Melissa’s mother, left-sided paralyzed, unable to roll over in bed without assistance. Melissa wanted her mother out as soon as she arrived an hour and a half earlier, but Virginia insisted that her daughter take care of the others first. Virginia reassured her, “I’ll be fine.”

Without electricity or backup power, Villa Capri’s elevator was malfunctioning, leaving the six elderly residents upstairs with no way down unless they were moved – and Cathy and Melissa’s recent back and hip surgeries would make that nearly impossible.

In desperation, Cathy flipped her flashlight and used its tip to deliver a powerful blow to the window glass. Nothing happened. Once again, I slammed him into the glass, this time with even more force. Nothing, not even a crack.

Even if Cathy and Melissa can get back inside, they only have one car between them. A shuttle bus large enough to carry all the remaining residents sat locked in the parking lot, but no one, not even the frightened Villa Capri staff they encountered earlier in the evening, knew where to find her keys. Cathy and Melissa’s options were running out – and time. Soon, a firestorm would surround them on three sides. Even the driveway marking their exit to Fountaingrove Parkway looked like it was on fire.

In the past six hours, the Tubbs Fire has already claimed more than a dozen lives and consumed thousands of homes, shops, offices, hotels and historic buildings within a 9-mile radius of Villa Capri and its sister complex, Farina. But because of the smoke, Cathy and Melissa couldn’t see the little bit of destruction rising behind the burning bushes and grapes of the hills adjacent to the complex. There was no indication that emergency vehicles were coming to help.

When Kathy and Melissa stood awkward, a brown GMC Sierra pickup sped down the narrow, shared driveway and raced through Villa Capri toward the larger but equally stately Farina entrance, located a few hundred feet to the northwest. Behind the wheel was Petaluma welder RJ Kessling, who, encouraged by his sister, came to check on their grandfather. Farina was dark, with only a few vehicles in the area, and RJ felt relieved. This was reinforced by the assurance he had given his sister an hour earlier, a conviction shared that night by many family and friends of the residents of Varenna and Villa Capri: “They surely would have found a way to get everyone out by now.”

RJ called his sister to tell her he had arrived and the place looked empty. “Are you sure?” challenged him. “Go check Papa’s apartment.” RJ did as I pleaded, got out of his truck, pulled out his headlight and entered Farina’s sweeping foyer. Usually during his arrival, the Royal Jordanian was influenced by a sense of opulence thanks to the lavish decor. But this time, it wasn’t the cool setting that caught RJ’s attention. were the faces. Outside the double doors, Farina’s dark and smoky lobby was filled with residents, some sitting on chairs or benches, others on sofas and walkers.

A gentleman got up from a chair near the café to the left of the hall and approached RJ “Are you the firefighters?” he asked quietly. “Are you here to save us?”

Anne E. Belden and Paul Gullixson are the authors of “Inflamed” which is due to be published in 2023.

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