OAKLAND -- Teresa Ferguson's nightmare started the day the flames appeared on the skyline above her home in the Oakland hills.
Today, 20 years later, the effects of the firestorm still reverberate through every corner of her life. Her mother-in-law died in the fire. One of her daughters later committed suicide on the very spot where she stumbled over her grandmother's charred remains. Her house, which burned, has been rebuilt but only recently started to feel like a home again. She fears the swirling hot autumn winds in a visceral way.
Friends and neighbors routinely say her family is the unluckiest one they know. But through it all, Ferguson has persevered.
"I can't imagine that we're not always going to have some emotional connection to that fire," she said. "But we've chosen to turn that into ways to make our lives better."
In that sense, Ferguson has triumphed over the fire that consumed so many others. But for her and for hundreds of others the fire also left physical and emotional scars that might never heal.
As communities across the East Bay gather this week to commemorate the victims of the 1991 Oakland hills fire that killed 25 people and destroyed more than 3,800 homes, they will also be remembering their own struggle to survive and learn from the fire.
"Some people have gotten over the fire, maybe they had more stable lives, or more support," said Alan Siegel, a Bay Area psychiatrist who conducted extensive studies of the dreams of firestorm victims and counseled many for acute trauma. There are those who have moved on but will never forget it, "but they're fine," Siegel said. "But some people are devastated and may never recover."
Ferguson's mother-in-law, Frances Scott, known affectionately as Grandy, was the only one at home Oct. 20, 1991. Ferguson's eldest daughter, 13-year-old Ginny Kleker, was staying at a friend's house, but called 911 to report the fire. The operator told her not to worry because everyone in the area had been evacuated and then hung up on her. Two days later, unable to locate Grandy, Ferguson's family sneaked back home to survey the damage. It was Ginny who stumbled across Grandy's body, an ashen skeleton lying close to the north entrance. Grandy, an invalid, had tried to crawl to safety, but the flames had consumed her. The shock of the discovery led Ferguson to tell her daughter something she would come to regret in later years: "We're never going to speak about this again."
What the Fergusons did do was try to survive. They fought pitched battles with the insurance companies. They hounded the city about its lack of preparedness for wildfires. Ferguson and her husband tried to pick up the pieces of their lives even as they struggled to help their two daughters cope.
On Oct. 8, 2008, Teresa Ferguson came home one day and found her daughter, now 31 and engaged to be married, hanging from the deck. Ginny had killed herself on the exact spot where, 17 years earlier, she had found her grandmother Grandy's ashen remains. Ginny had struggled with mental health issues. She had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and acute depression. But she was also a brilliant artist and an acute observer of her surroundings. Her choices about her own death seem, to her mother, intricately tied to the fire.
"I can't say her death was all because of the fire, but it was a huge part of it," Ferguson said. A therapist later told her that suicidal people often choose places that have meaning for them.
"I wouldn't have wanted it any other way," Ferguson said. "She had died by the time I found her, but I could hold her, feel the warmth of her, if she had done that any other place, I wouldn't have had that connection."
As if time had stopped, the fire that the family had succeeded in putting behind them suddenly and in the most violent way intruded back into their lives. The family went back into therapy. Ferguson had at first thought her daughter's crumpled body was a folded up deck umbrella. Suddenly she found herself unable to look at umbrellas.
Ginny wasn't the only suicide tied to the fire.
Bob Heaney was another resident of the Oakland hills. His friend Daisy Duffey lost everything in the fire. Two weeks after the insurance company told Duffey it planned to reimburse her a mere $120,000 for her house, a fifth of what it was worth, Duffey slit her wrists. Heaney discovered her body.
"She was so depressed by the whole thing. She promised the therapist she wouldn't kill herself, but 10 days later she did," he recalled. "Every fall I think about it pretty strongly and it does disturb me, because her death was so unnecessary."
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, Siegel, the Bay Area psychiatrist, began recording victims' dreams. One victim, whose dream Siegel chronicled in a 1996 book chapter, recorded a nightmare in which the "fire had developed an organic consciousness. It was the embodiment of evil."
Another victim told of a nightmare in which she simply watched as another woman was burned alive. "She was terrified as she clutched the front of the charred building. ... She couldn't scream -- just looked out terrified for help."
As victims began to deal with the trauma of the fire, their dreams also began to change. People dreamed of confronting overwhelming physical obstacles -- tidal waves or floods, metaphors for the fire -- directly and often successfully. After months of therapy, one heavily traumatized survivor dreamed of fending off environmental terrorists who had invaded his neighborhood.
"As you work out the trauma, there are trial-and-error stages," Siegel said. "Nine months after the fire, this guy saved his neighborhood from environmental terrorists in a dream. There you can see the evolution of resolution."
Siegel also found that people who had escaped the fire without significant damage to their homes or their loved ones were wracked with the worst cases of post-traumatic stress. They were bedeviled by survivor's guilt because the community perceived them -- mistakenly, it turned out -- to be immune from trauma and fear.
One man Siegel spoke to had been in the Loma Prieta earthquake two years before the fire. After his house burned down, he became obsessed with protecting his wife and children. "He reacted to the second (trauma) by focusing on the first," said Karen Muller, who worked with Siegel on the dream research.
The fire affected everyone differently.
For Sara Somers, a retired marriage and family therapist, the fire upended her life. For three months, Somers lived with the help of friends and neighbors. Then that emotional support vanished. She thought about life in starker terms: BF (before fire), and AF (after fire). Her memory started to blur. She couldn't find the words to talk about the fire. Before, she didn't know who her neighbors were. Now, at 65, she credits her community with helping her recover.
But when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans it devastated her all over again. Experts say other traumas and anniversaries can be particularly hard. "People in 9/11 had a lot less trauma than victims of Katrina because they had a home to go to," said Susanne Babbel, a San Francisco therapist who specializes in trauma. "In the Oakland fire they didn't have homes to return to."
Somers has learned one important lesson: She is a survivor.
"I believe to this day the only thing I learned is that one can get through something like that," she said. "I did it very ungratefully. I was hurtful to people. I was a typical trauma victim. I got too emotional, but there is no doubt in my mind, I can survive something like that. That was huge, just to learn you can survive."