Life continues for victims of Oakland Hills fire

October 19, 2011 7:55:06 PM PDT
Twenty years ago Thursday, the Oakland Hills were ablaze -- a firestorm that raced through 3,000 homes and killed 25 people. To see that area today, though, you would never know what happened there.

"The Doorway to Nowhere" was a symbolic photograph 20 years ago. For Gary Pacini, it became more of a portal -- the doorway to the future.

Pacini remembers it as a day when, as a firefighter, he saved multiple homes only to learn that his own home had burned.

"I might have tried to do something," Pacini said in 1991. "I don't know. We were already committed to where we were."

They were committed from the beginning when a sunny day gave way to the billowing charcoal sky with the East Bay hills on fire.

"I knew that day it was possible that I would die," Capt. David Hines with the Oakland Fire Department said. "If I didn't die, I knew that others would die."

Twenty-five people did die.

On a day when most people moved away from the flames, Hines moved toward and into them. Hines describes the fire as being like a dragon consuming dreams.

"It's the biggest thing I've ever faced," Hines said. "I cannot imagine anything bigger."

For those who lived through it, the sights and sounds of that day are seared into memory: The futility of a garden hose, the fury of the 65-mile-per-hour winds.

The feeling that, despite all of our technology, everyone was helpless.

"You would hear a pop, and that would be a eucalyptus exploding," fire survivor Ron Murov recounted. "Then another kind of blast, and that was a car blowing up. And then you would hear a huge explosion, and that would be a house blowing up."

Among the homes that burned was Murov's home filled with priceless baseball memorabilia.

"When we left the house, I told each kid, 'Grab whatever is important to you, because the rest is stuff,'" Murov said.

Through a long afternoon and into the evening, thousands of homes burned.

"it was chaos," Hines said. "There was great fear in people and confusion and panic."

In the shelters where evacuated residents went, there were so many questions and so few answers. Morning revealed the awful truth coming to light in a smoky haze.

Only those who went through it can fully appreciate such despair: They lost family and friends, something with no traces. They lost security.

They lost the stuff of memories.

"I was numb," Pacini said. "I didn't know what to do."

Like everyone else, Pacini took every day one step at a time. To this day, Pacini and Murov remain neighbors.

"We all got nicer houses, but I don't know anyone who would trade the newer house for the fire," Murov said.

Hines is still a fireman and is counting his blessings every day.

"It's really amazing that more people did not perish from that fire," Hines said.

In the days after the fire, Pacini's high school sweetheart saw the photo of the 'Doorway to Nowhere' among other photos. After thirty years, she got in touch with Pacini.

Now, she's his wife.

"Going through life, I would never picture this for myself, but it's turned out better than I could imagine," Pacini said.

Life goes on twenty years later atop the burnscape.

Load Comments