Must Reads: As deadly flames approached, a mother called her daughters to say goodbye
This is how I die.
She is standing in the driveway of a sand-colored house — she doesn’t know whose — and the air is choked with smoke.
The sky is a nuclear orange. Wind is hurling embers against her body and into her blond wavy hair.
She has just seen an ambulance melt. Transformers are blowing up around her. Homes are caving in and trees are bowing. Fleeing cars have jammed the roads, and flames dance on both sides of the asphalt.
Tamara Ferguson is a 42-year-old woman who does not surrender. She graduated high school with a 4-month-old and a 4.0 grade-point average and one year of college credit. She put herself through nursing school while pregnant and with four children. She coaches panicked women through difficult labors. She is resilient, stubborn, strong-willed.
But the fire official who just pulled up to her group — two fellow nurses, a pediatrician, two EMTs, two paramedics, two volunteer firefighters — distills the situation into an unbearable truth.
They are trapped within a ring of fire.
So Tamara stands in her scrubs, the pink and black ones all the nurses in the baby unit wear, and wonders whether she should stay still when the flames come or get inside the ambulance, which has oxygen tanks and could explode. What is the best way to be taken by fire?
She could have been out of Paradise by now. Her shift at Feather River Hospital began that Thursday morning at 6:45 a.m. About an hour and a half later, they were told to leave.
But instead of hopping into her black SUV and heading down Pentz Road, Tamara stayed. Nearly 70 patients needed to be evacuated. Forty-five minutes passed before she climbed into an ambulance and left.
They drove one mile before the ambulance ahead of them caught fire. That’s when they pulled up to the house on Chloe Court, when they broke into the garage to seek refuge, when the inferno around them became terrifyingly clear.
Now the garage holds a mother who just had a C-section, an elderly woman strapped to a backboard and another woman on a gurney. Inside the ambulance is a man on a ventilator who can’t be moved. Tamara checks on them, speaks gently and assures them that they will make it through this.
Then she pulls out her pink phone and begins making final calls to those of her daughters old enough to understand.
There is much to say when death encroaches. But when you only have a moment, you just say the truth.
I’m trapped in the fire. It’s all around me. I love you. Take care of Brayden and Allyson and Brooklyn. Make sure they know how much I loved them.
The first call is to Clarissa, her eldest at 24. The second call is to Savannah, whose 22nd birthday is days away.
Her girls each reply the same way: No, no, no, you’re going to make it out. You’re fine, you’re fine. You will be OK.
They cry. She cries.
No, you don’t understand. I’m not going to make it. I was the best mother I could be. I’m sorry for the mistakes I made. I’m so sorry.
She can’t elaborate on the apology. She has to go.
Tamara is close to her children, the kind of mom who packs lunches and throws themed birthday parties and hangs with her kids’ friends over pedicures. But she always wanted to do better.
If the blaze allowed more time, she would explain it like this:
She is sorry she didn’t plan her life better, that maybe she wasn’t as prepared as she could have been when she got pregnant at 17. Sorry for the two years of nursing school when she missed out on things because she was buried in books or multitasking at her kids’ events, poring over study cards stashed in her book bag.
Sorry for the long hospital night shifts that came later and the holidays she had to work and the promises she couldn’t keep. The unhealthy relationship she had stayed in, the fights with stubborn teenagers, the times she disappointed them and wasn’t at her best — sorry for it all.
And mostly sorry she won’t be able to mother them anymore.
But despair can be broken if the right light shines through.
For Tamara, it comes in the form of the fire official who returned.
David Hawks, a division chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, is now calmly giving out orders: Find something to fill with water. Hose down the roof. Make sure the perimeter by the white fence is wet. Grab that broom, clear away the brush.
There is nothing to do but choose a task. The mood lightens, even as hot ash rains from above.
Tamara finds herself gathering and dumping armfuls of pine needles. She jokes how the owner of the house will at least have a clean yard. The group takes a selfie, dubbing it their last photo together.
The house next door is on fire. Hawks says everyone needs to head back to the hospital, so they do. But at Feather River, a giant tree catches fire. So does part of the building. They move to the hospital’s helipad, a concrete slab in an already burned area.
Sheriff’s cruisers start to show up. The fire is marching away. We’re gonna form a conga line of vehicles, someone says, and tailgate out of here. Tamara gets into the back of a cruiser with a 95-year-old woman. They hold hands.
It is about 1:30 p.m. and the fire is moving east. Tamara stares out the back window as they drive, watching flames burst across the road.
The group finally arrives at Oroville Hospital. Clarissa calls. Are you really coming home?
Tamara’s other kids rush in. Savannah and Allyson, 13. Then Brayden, 14, and Brooklyn, 6. They grab her, their bodies shaking. They weep. They don’t let go.
Don’t apologize for anything, they tell her. You are incredible. You raised five kids by yourself. You are everything to us.
Tamara holds them tight, the beginning of a second chance warm in her arms.
This is how I live.
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