SANTA ROSA — Nanette Williams worried for days that her 96-year-old aunt, Nora Hennings, had perished in the fire that tore through her Santa Rosa neighborhood early Monday morning.
The 61-year-old Williams lives nearly 800 miles away near Phoenix and was stuck filing a missing person report with the Sonoma County Sheriff’s office that seemed to go nowhere and pleading on Facebook for anyone with information to get in touch.
Finally on Thursday, after days spent in excruciating limbo hoping for the best but preparing for the worst, the sheriff’s office called. They’d found her alive — at home.
As the fire raged around her, Hennings, who’s gone mostly blind in recent years from macular degeneration, had holed up in her mobile home, frightened and alone. The evacuation order had gone out Sunday, but Hennings can’t see, let alone drive. When she needs to pick up groceries or a prescription, she uses a landline to call a younger guy in the neighborhood who helps her out occasionally. But the landline was dead and she didn’t have a cellphone. No text alerts or email blasts.
“What did you want her to do, start hitchhiking at 2 a.m. blind?” said Williams during a phone interview Friday afternoon. “I think the thought of going anywhere frightens her so bad.”
Hennings didn’t know it at the time, but she came within feet of perishing. Just three homes away, property has been reduced to ash and rubble. Hennings told Williams later she could see flames from her window.
But what Williams hoped would be a happy ending turned out to be the start of a new ordeal, one the family would overcome with the help of “an angel,” she said.
Hennings, who will celebrate her 97th birthday on Oct. 29, was sitting in a freezing home with no power and no working phone. She had no family nearby, no grown children to come to her rescue. She didn’t want to go to an unfamiliar shelter by herself and the fire in her neighborhood was out.
Williams got a message on Facebook from a woman she didn’t know named Briana Woods. Do you want me to go check on your mom? she asked. It seemed meant to be.
But the area was still under mandatory evacuation and authorities wouldn’t let anybody in despite Williams’ pleas that her elderly aunt needed someone to bring her food and warm clothes.
But Woods was persistent. “I will go and check on your aunt even if I have to climb over a fence,” Williams remembers her promising.
A deputy agreed to look the other way.
“Who wouldn’t do that?” Woods, 35, said Friday just after visiting Hennings with her son Zackery, 11. “Who wouldn’t want someone to go check on their mom, their aunt, their family member or neighbor? I just worried about her all night.”
She’d seen Williams post about Hennings on Facebook and the old woman looked like her grandmother. She found her cold and shaking.
“I just went over there,” she said. “Quite honestly, it was probably more healing for me just to know I could lend something to someone in this crisis.”
It isn’t clear how many happy endings like Hennings’ are out there. With more than 250 people still reported missing in Sonoma County alone on Friday, authorities are desperately trying to find out whether they are in farflung evacuation centers or staying with friends — or possibly perished. The death toll on Friday climbed to 33.
Woods had to evacuate her own home during the fire, but once she knew it was safe, her thoughts turned to helping others.
“It’s just been tugging at my heartstrings to see how many people are still missing,” she said. “Since our own family is safe, I started looking at what I could do. I started thinking about family members who don’t live here, who are searching for loved ones and don’t know the community.”
Williams will be eternally grateful. She knows the sheriff’s office is under immense pressure, but was jarred by their insistence that her mother either evacuate or fend for herself. “Thinking the only way is to displace very elderly people is not the right answer,” she said.
Woods says she’ll be back at Hennings’ place every morning until the power comes on, regardless. And Hennings isn’t the only vulnerable senior citizen out there.
“It’s not about me, it’s about these people who are in there,” Woods said. “There’s still a community of seniors who are in there and they are definitely trying to take care of one another.”
But for Williams, it is about Woods, about a stranger turned lifesaver, about a glimmer of hope amidst the devastation.
“She’s a guardian angel,” Williams said. “I need to meet her someday so I can hug her.”
Staff Writer Tracy Seipel contributed to this report.