When firefighters Tony Niel and Drew Peterson set out early the morning of Oct. 9, through the hills of Fountaingrove in the only car left at Santa Rosa Fire Station 2, their mission was no longer to fight the wildfires raging through Sonoma County. It was to see whether anyone was still alive.
They passed street after street of homes engulfed in flames when, out of the thick smoke, they heard screaming — the desperate cries of Sonoma State University President Judy Sakaki and her husband, Patrick McCallum, as they fled their fire-ravaged neighborhood.
By the time the smoke alarm woke Sakaki at 4 a.m., her Hanover Place home was already on fire. The rest of her neighbors had long since evacuated.
Together, Sakaki and McCallum traveled 0.8 miles, bracing against the wind-driven flames, the ash and the smoke, until they saw the headlamps of the Santa Rosa Fire Department SUV driven by Niel and Peterson.
“I knew we were going to live when we saw the lights,” McCallum said in an interview Friday, after reuniting with Niel for the first time since that October morning.
Sakaki presented the university’s Valor Award to the firefighters Friday in an emotional ceremony at the North Bay Business Journal’s Sonoma State University Economic Outlook Conference. Peterson was unable to attend.
In the car that morning, Niel carried a challenge coin — the kind first responders and members of the armed forces like to trade or give out for special reasons. On Friday, he gave that coin to Sakaki and McCallum — the first survivors he and Peterson came upon that night — along with a lantern Sakaki was carrying during their escape, before she left it in the backseat of the SUV.
“The strength that they had that night, I can’t say it enough, I don’t know if a lot of people would have been able to do what you guys did,” Niel said. “To have the mindset to get out and go.”
Sakaki and McCallum ran through smoke so thick they could barely breathe, with wind whipping flames into their flesh as they headed uphill away from their home, at times pulling one another along their path.
“Just when we thought we could not go on, miraculously we saw two very dim headlights in the distance,” Sakaki said.
If they had lingered at their home, if Niel and Peterson had been driving more quickly or taken another route, if any number of alternative timelines had occurred, McCallum believes they would have missed the SUV. Niel feels the same way.
“I think we’ve said it before, but probably another minute, and it would have been 46 (deaths) instead of 44,” Niel said.
By the time he found the couple coming up Parker Hill Road, Niel knew his own home in Mark West Estates was likely already gone. Instead of trying to save it from the flames, he left, sending his wife and sons to a friend’s house in Cloverdale, and getting to the station house as quickly as he could.
“To be honest, I have a pretty strong faith, so I just figured God put me there,” he said. “I knew if I had five engines, there would have been no way to save our block. … I’m happy that the timing wasn’t different, because if it was, I wouldn’t have met you folks.”