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An Ex-New Yorker on the Sonoma Fire’s 9/11 Undertones

The horror felt familiar. So did what came after.

 

This is one of many stories about the North Bay fires published in the December issue of San Francisco. To read the rest, click here.

The acrid smell hit me as soon as I stepped outside. Then I heard the wail of sirens. East toward the Mayacamas Mountains, a cascading plume of smoke filled the morning sky. The sun peeked through but was an unfamiliar hue—an ominous blood orange rather than its typically cheery yellow. A neighbor hurriedly dropped suitcases into the back of his pickup truck, stopping for a moment in the middle of the street to snap photos.

Even though I knew it was October 9, 2017, and I was standing outside my home in Sonoma, I was transported back to Lower Manhattan and the harrowing days that followed the September 11 attacks. Is it over? Am I safe? Should I leave? The wine country wildfires triggered emotions I was not eager to relive.

Sixteen years ago, as an editor at a national magazine, I spent the days and weeks after the attack working near Ground Zero, interviewing survivors and first responders as well as grieving widows and widowers. It was a brutal assignment. I spoke to a man who worked directly across the street from the World Trade Center and had watched with horror as one of the towers collapsed with his wife still inside. I interviewed a crew of office workers who had managed to escape largely because a coworker stayed behind to funnel people to the exits, sacrificing her own life so that others could live. Everybody was scarred.

The physical scene, especially below Canal Street, mirrored Manhattanites’ emotional state. The roads were empty except for the emergency vehicles racing down the West Side Highway and the police cars barricading southbound streets. The smell of burning buildings was inescapable. Ash covered the sidewalks, stores were shuttered, and the few civilians in the area wore masks over their faces and moved slowly and tentatively, as if in shock.

Sonoma felt a bit like that in the first few days after the fires. My neighborhood was empty—older couples, families with young kids, and anybody with better options had up and left. Sonoma Plaza, usually a bustling hub of restaurants, shops, and wine tasting rooms, was a virtual ghost town save for the occasional parade of first responders moving from one staging area to another. Cinders blanketed backyards. Smoke from the surrounding hills descended into the valley and lingered—you knew the danger was out there somewhere, but you couldn’t quite place it. The uncertainty was not reassuring.

But as the week progressed and firefighters gained ground on the Tubbs, Nuns, and Pocket fires, Sonoma sprang back to life. Locals who had left town or hunkered down returned to their routines, walking their dogs down Denmark Street or stopping in for a pint at the Girl & the Fig. Sonomans are among the friendliest people on the planet, but the sense of community was ratcheted up further. Signs thanking first responders appeared everywhere. Strangers stopped to share their stories, show their photos, and find out how you were doing.

In Manhattan after September 11, the question was always “Did you lose anyone?” In the town of Sonoma, where, fortunately, no lives were lost, people invariably started with “Did you lose anything?” The people I spoke with seemed to agree on one thing: It’s only stuff. Life, and living, and taking time to celebrate everyday moments in this glorious little town are the real treasure.

People here seem to realize that, especially with the deaths of 43 people in Sonoma and neighboring counties. My wife and I certainly do. Eight days after the fires began, we noticed that our favorite local restaurant, Café La Haye, was reopening. There was never any doubt in our minds: We had to go.

We are regulars there, in part because Café La Haye reminds us of the cozy places we used to frequent in Manhattan’s West Village and in part because we always feel like part of something larger there—a community. Saul Gropman, the owner, typically greets us with a wide grin, a bit of friendly banter, and the latest updates to his wine list. On this night, however, the interaction took on an entirely different character. The place was packed with regulars—people eager to show their support for the restaurant and excited about returning to a new normal. When Saul saw us walk in, he enveloped us in one big, heartfelt hug, and held it. He then stepped back, looked at us closely, and said, “Thank you.”

It was great to be back

 

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco 

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