Wednesday, October 12, 2011
On Oct. 19, 1991, I was at the Marines Memorial Club in San Francisco attending a banquet honoring Sam Richards, a 90-year-old Marine aviator who fought in World War I.
He wanted to fight in World War II, too, but the Marines wouldn't let him re-enlist because he was too old. So he joined the Army and became Eleanor Roosevelt's personal pilot, flying her from island to island in the South Pacific to visit the troops.
On the day World War I ended, he and his buddies formed a Last Man's Club. They bought an expensive bottle of French wine and agreed that the last man alive would open it and drink a toast to the others.
The last man turned out to be Richards. That night at the Marines Memorial Club he opened the bottle and let everyone in the room have a sip.
The next morning, his home was burned to the ground by the Oakland Hills firestorm, destroying all the souvenirs of his remarkable life.
Richards was one of thousand of victims of the fire, which killed 25 people, injured hundreds of others and destroyed more than 4,000 homes
Many survivors never went back. "I can rebuild my house, but I can't rebuild my neighborhood," one explained to me. "That's gone forever."
But there were a few miraculous escapes. The nuns at Holy Names College, which was directly in the path of the flames, prayed to the founder of their order, Mother Marie Rose Durocher, to save the school.
You may or may not believe in the power of prayer, but the fact remains: Holy Names was saved, even though the surrounding area was completely devastated.
Then there was Dudley the dog. He was a 10-year-old German shepherd mix owned by Virginia Smith, one of the 25 people who died that terrible day. When firefighters found Dudley in the ruins of Smith's home on Charing Cross Road, he was huddled next to her body.
All four paws were horribly burned, but he wouldn't leave her side. They literally had to drag him away.
Dudley was rushed to Berkeley Dog & Cat Hospital, where Dr. Alan Shriro lovingly treated his burns. But he barely moved. He barely ate. He'd lost the will to live.
Meanwhile, hospital staffers were frantically trying to locate Smith's husband, Stanley, who wasn't home when the fire struck.
Finally, after days of searching, they found him. He was staying with his brother in San Leandro.
"I'll be right there!" he said.
It normally takes at least a half-hour to drive from San Leandro to Berkeley. He made it in 15 minutes.
Dudley was in the back room. But as soon as he got a whiff of his dad's scent, he started crying louder than you've ever heard a dog cry in your life.
"We brought him out, and he went wild with joy," says Shriro. "He started jumping up and down and howling and wagging his tail like crazy. Mr. Smith started crying. Then everyone in the waiting room started crying. And so did I."
But these were rare exceptions. The firestorm was an unqualified disaster, even worse than the Loma Prieta earthquake, which was plenty bad enough.
I told myself, "I will never experience anything as horrible as this again."
Then came 9/11.