As TV news reporters, we’re often assigned to cover a very specific angle of a larger story (in about 1 minute and 30 seconds).
As a result, we can be forced to leave out compelling details, nuances or background information because it simply doesn’t fit. But that doesn’t mean those details don’t impact us.
I was recently assigned to cover the Valley Fire in Northern California. The fire wiped out entire communities, left thousands homeless and took the lives of at least four people. As a consumer reporter, however, I was “out-boarded” (a TV news term) to cover the “consumer angles.”
In the midst of producing those reports, I met a woman named Jennifer Hartnett whose story left a lasting impact on me as a mom.
Jennifer walked up while I was interviewing her sister (whose home was spared by the flames). I could tell by the look on Jennifer’s face that she had been through a lot. Unlike her sister, Jennifer lost everything in the fire.
Instinctively, I opened my arms and offered her a hug. Time stood still as she began to tell me her story.
Her son had been trapped, home alone, as the fire jumped the freeway and raced toward their home. She couldn’t get to him, so she told him to run. As he attempted to escape the flames on foot, she said cars simply passed him by, leaving him for dead. For hours she didn’t know if her son made it out alive.
I was mesmerized by her story as tears of empathy welled up in my eyes. I can only imagine the terror she felt, helpless to save her child.
When she was done with her story, we exchanged information. I knew I wouldn’t be able to include it in my news report that day, but I vowed to give her the opportunity to share her story.
Here it is in its entirety, in her own words:
It was a just a typical Saturday, although it was a gloomy morning and something about the energy felt strange when I woke up. I was supposed to go to a yoga class at the new yoga center next to Middletown High School, but was running late and didn’t make it in time, so I headed to my mother-in-law’s house instead. We talked for a bit, and then I went to work at my shop, Munchies & Music, bringing my 6-year-old son along with me. We spent the day together helping customers, scooping ice cream and having a great time together.
Around 4:00 PM, Harbin Hot Springs was evacuated. I watched the parking lot in front of my shop filling up with evacuees, probably because it’s the first stop after leaving Harbin. As my son and I went outside to see what was going on, I noticed the smoke and fire coming towards town. I immediately grabbed my phone and started videotaping. I continued to record for nearly an hour, thinking nothing like this could ever reach Middletown, let alone my own home. I was so wrong. The video that I shot with my phone that afternoon clearly shows how fast the fire was coming down Cobb, towards Middletown.About 5:30 PM, my mother-in-law Denise Hartnett called me to tell me my sister, Melody, had left work at Twin Pine Casino after hearing about the fire. Melody went home, about a quarter mile down from Twin Pine, distraught and in a panic. My mother-in-law told me she needed my help gathering up some of her belongings, so I quickly closed my shop, grabbed my son and drove straight to her house.
On the way, I called my older son, Alex, who was home alone in HVL [Hidden Valley Lake] with our dogs. I told him what was happening and asked him to make sure he stays by the phone and to be ready if he had to evacuate. I told him, “I will be there to pick you up.”
By the time I got to my sister’s house, her car was nearly full. As I went inside to help grab pictures off the walls, I remember thinking how silly it was for Melody to be packing up her things. I never thought the fire would reach Middletown. My youngest son waited patiently in the car as we rushed in and out of the house, loading up both of our vehicles. Just then I got a call from a friend who quickly said, “Hidden Valley Lake mandatory evacuation. Leave now. Evacuate now.”
It was almost 6:00 PM. Melody and I were going to get Alex together, but we ended up getting separated and headed to her mother’s home in Calistoga. I called a friend of mine who lives about a mile from my house and asked him to get Alex for me, then called Alex to let him know someone was going to come get him and the dogs. He said, “Okay. I’ve got the dogs and I can see the fire coming.” I told him to run but the phone was silent. I called him over and over, hoping that he would hear me telling him to run, to get out, but the phone lines were down.
I started to sweat. I was crying and started to panic, not knowing what to do or how to get to my son.
My 6-year old, Shawn, was in the back seat. I could tell he was scared too. He sat quietly crying, trying so hard to be brave. He asked, “Where’s my Bubba? Where is Alex?” I reassured Shawn that Alex was going to be okay and we were going to get him soon.
Driving the few blocks from Middletown to Hidden Valley Lake is something I can never forget. It was horrific; like a scene straight from a movie, it was all very apocalyptic feeling. People were screaming, cars were stopped in the middle of the road, others ran around frantically trying to stuff their cars with as many belongings as they could fit as they fled out of town. I ended up in a line of vehicles trying to get into Hidden Valley Lake, but was stopped by a Police officer. Just then, a huge ball of flames jumped down the mountain near Harbin Hot Springs and onto Highway 29, about a half mile off Butts Canyon Road. It was terrifying. I could not believe my eyes; it was a nightmare.
I asked the police man who stopped me, “Please help me, I need to get my son. He’s in Hidden Valley Lake and I need to get him. He’s by himself, he is only 15. Please help me!”
The officer didn’t seem to hear me. He said, “Ma’am, you cannot drive into a big ball of fire. Sorry, but you must evacuate now.” I persisted for him to let me through, but he refused. The officer kept trying to send me down the side road and finally I gave in. As I drove back towards Middletown, through the back roads, I came across homes being fled, more cars leaving and a lot of scared people. There was chaos in the streets; people of all ages running, screaming, and crying. There was no order; no one was in charge.
After making it safely back to Middletown, I drove to my mother-in-law’s house. I didn’t know what to do. I was so scared. My son Shawn and I went inside and he played games quietly while I tried to collect myself. I called everyone I could think of looking for a distraction, some comfort, someone to listen, but no one answered. Finally, I decided to drive back to my shop to gather up some food and any personal belongings I had left, locked the doors and went to find someone to help me find my son. I found an officer and told him what happened, provided a description and waited while he put out a BPO over the radio for Alex. He told me he had about 100 other people with the same situation. It seemed hopeless. The police didn’t seem to have a handle on anything.
I finally got ahold of one of my neighbors who told me they saw Alex walking with two dogs down Powderhorn. “I would’ve picked him up if I knew he was your son,” he said. Hearing this was heartbreaking, but also gave me hope knowing that he had made it out of the house. Around 7:00 PM, my friend Nick called to tell me that Powderhorn was on fire and that he couldn’t get to my home. Was stuck in his car and he didn’t have Alex. I would drive to Munchies & Music and back to my mother-in-law’s four more times throughout the night, talking to the authorities to see if they found Alex and asking anyone I could for help. I could not leave my son. He was stuck in the valley and I in Middletown, and there was a huge wall of fire between us. My heart was breaking, tears falling. I felt so helpless.
I drove to the Lions Club next to my mother-in-law’s house. There were a lot of campers, trailers, cars and people just waiting to find out what was going on. Nobody knew anything because there was no warning, there were no sirens, no text message alerts. There was nothing any of us could do. I called my husband just before 10:00 PM and told him I was headed to Calistoga, that I couldn’t put myself and my 6-year old’s life in danger, and that I needed to leave. I drove to Calistoga as fast as I could, stopping at the 76 gas station, when my phone rang. “Alex? Is this Alex?”
A happy voice answered, “Yes! It’s me, Alex; it’s me, Alex! I’m okay! This really nice couple saved me.”
I was beyond relieved. I cried against the steering wheel, aware that I had just received a miracle. My son was okay. He was okay, and that is all that mattered to me!
I found out Sunday around 4:00 AM that my house was burned to the ground. A friend who works with CalFire called to tell me and asked if I wanted a photo confirmation. Of course I did. I waited a long time before I got the picture, but finally, at 7:00 AM, I got the confirmation… It was still on fire, but everything was gone! Everything.
Looking back at the videos I took just after Harbin was evacuated, I realized not one single emergency siren went off in Middletown between 4:30 and 5:30 PM. When you listen, you do not hear sirens. You do not hear police or fire engine sirens. The only thing you can hear is the sobs and gasps of the victims.
Monday, September 21, 2015, 8pm, I get a call from Trevor at the Hidden Valley Lake Fire Station #63. He told me he found a brown box with all my belongings inside. I was amazed. I was so happy. I cried. Alex had grabbed this cardboard box, along with his baby blanket and my 6-year-old son’s blanket. Alex ditched the box on the corner after trying to run for his life with our two dogs. Carrying the box was too much.
The firefighters who tried to save our neighborhood saw the box on Saturday night and one of them picked it up. He saved a little bit of a miracle. He said it was amazing it had survived because it was right alongside a house that no longer stands. Earlier in the summer when the Jerusalem Fire was burning, I made a box full of all my important possessions: birth certificates, my marriage certificate, my 6-year-old Shawn’s baby book, my wedding album, family albums and special mementos, along with a bunch of things I will get to call mine once more.
Footnote: I did end up “making slot” that day. (That’s news lingo for getting your story in on time.) Though I could not include Jennifer’s full story, I was able to use a portion of Jennifer’s interview in two of my consumer reports.