Mr. Pierce, the jury for OOOM 100: THE WORLD’S MOST INSPIRING PEOPLE has voted you number one this year. Congratulations.
I don’t think I deserve to be on top of a list that includes Barack Obama. I don’t mean to speak in clichés, but I just did what I do. I got trapped in a fire and drove back to the hospital to take care of my patients and my community.
Not everyone would risk their lives.
Anyone I work with would. We are hospital workers and our top priority is our patients and their safety. Beyond our own.
On November 8, the day of the catastrophe, you worked a shift at the intensive care unit at Adventist Health Hospital. How did this fateful morning unfold?
I do anything a director would do. I head all the hiring, but I also help on the floor a lot. I have worked with my team as an ICU nurse for over 10 years. The whole hospital is 99 beds, and my particular unit is a 12-bed ICU. It’s a rural hospital.
What exactly happened in Paradise on November 8?
I was in a morning meeting. My wife was getting the kids ready for school and then she would go to work after that. She texted me and told me that there were a lot of fires around with a lot of wind. I stepped out of the meeting and there was a lot of smoke coming toward me. At 8 o’clock we had an incident command system directive to make a quick decision to evacuate the hospital. Everything happened within 30 to 40 minutes. Before then, I had texted my team to prepare patient information so that the beds were ready to go. I have very sick patients, some of them are on machines to be kept alive, and we have to be very careful how we do it. When the decision was made to evacuate, I went straight back to my unit and we tried to evacuate all of the different kinds of people. I think there were about 67 patients that were taken out of the hospital and down the hill in about 20 to 30 minutes: out of bed into a vehicle heading down the hill. While the rest of the patients were going out, I and some others were clearing the rooms. Then I made sure that all of my staff was out of the hospital before I got into my car. I would have rather left earlier because, as we were getting the patients out, the fire was coming down the hill and starting to ignite on the hospital campus.
Z: I checked all rooms to make sure we didn’t forget anyone. Once I was convinced that the building was cleared, I headed to my own car.
You were among the last to leave the hospital campus.
Yes. Pearson Road was a smaller road and it goes down and then back up a little. The fire was already going in the direction we were headed. We started toward it and then traffic gridlocked. The trees and houses were on fire, a lot of gas tanks were exploding, cars were starting to explode. I had to repeat to myself: “This is real!” because it was so surreal. I tried to stay out of the fire as much as possible so that I wouldn’t lose a tire, because then we wouldn’t make it through.
Were you scared?
The two people in the car with me were getting very nervous, so I started playing the “Deadpool 2” soundtrack, which included a lot of oldies. I played Peter Gabriel’s “In your eyes,” and we were singing along. We were trapped in the vision of this calm song with the fire burning all around. This would have been a crazy scene in a movie! Around that time we get stuck next to a fire truck. They didn’t move anymore and were just putting their safety blankets against the windows and, at that point, I thought: “Ok, that’s not a good sign.” The people with me actually left my truck and got into the fire truck. But I decided to stay in my truck, also because we were partly gridlocked by people evacuating their cars. I didn’t want to be one of the things blocking the route. People were driving around us and their tires were catching fire, and during that there were explosions and fires on all sides. There’s a fire tornado, mayhem around…I tried to explain it to a friend: “It’s like you were watching an action movie and they were doing all the stunts at once!”
In that moment, did you think to yourself: “I am going to die!”?
After the two people left, I had a lot of time to myself. I started recording medias on my Instagram, I didn’t have a signal. Yes, I thought I was going to die. I thought I was done, the fire was already coming up behind us and we were in the middle. The firemen had already stopped moving forward. I remember A-HA playing “Take on Me” and I thought I was recording my last message for my family and friends, saying: “I really tried everything to get out of here, I love you all!” Then I tried to wrap my phone in a way that would maybe keep it from melting in the fire. Then I was just sitting there, holding my jacket up to the window because the flames were so intense. That was when I heard this mechanical sound and then “Boom!”
What had happened?
A bulldozer came and knocked the truck out of the way. It flipped off to the side and then exploded and I saw that there is a path out into the forest. I tried to drive out into the forest and turn around and head back up the hill.
Why did you decide to go back to the hospital?
You know, I haven’t even thought about that until someone asked me that same question. I don’t know. I thought: “Let’s just go back to where I know what to do.” So, I headed back. Not a lot of people try to head back to the fire. And there are just walls of fire. And as I get there, I see colleagues of mine arrive as well. And there were other people too, people who were converging in our parking lot. Police were bringing them in and fire trucks and the ambulance were transporting people as well. I got together with two of my nurse leaders and we decided to set up triage outside the hospital in the parking lot. So we raided the hospital and got all of the medical supplies, food, and drinks. We went through the emergency department, grabbing chairs and putting them up outside. That was going well, but then the hospital caught fire. At that point we decided to move over to the helipad that had already burnt over. We moved everything there then.
With your heroic effort, the lives of all patients were saved. What did your family say when you finally held them in your arms again?
My wife hadn’t heard from me since that morning, so she was waiting for hours and hours. They were all crying and running up and hugging me.
What happened to your house?
My house is gone. Everything is gone. But I have a lot of perspective, so that’s good stuff.
How do you deal with suddenly being a hero?
It’s pretty easy because I am a hero on the internet, but here at the house I’m dad. So many people risked their lives in this catastrophe. I am just one of many. Everyone else in Paradise would have acted the way I did.