Tritons help each other through hardship.
Our lives changed when Sue noticed an orange glow coming from our window—we looked outside and saw our neighbor’s house on fire.
We had recently moved to the Bay Area after getting married a month prior. It was October 1991, and we were renting a home at the top of the Berkeley Hills, a mountainous neighborhood that was part of the site of the Oakland Hills Firestorm, or the Tunnel Fire.
We quickly gathered what we thought we needed most, such as my personal computer and our wedding photo proofs and thank you notes for our guests. If we were going to have a fire in our lives, that was probably a decent time because we were just starting out together.
Sue and I each drove a car down the mountain. The roads were narrow and there was only a single lane, as there was such an exodus to get out. We drove through traffic and smoke. At some point, the houses higher up on the hill burnt down to stilts and cars and debris fell down the mountain, landing on top of cars and blocking the road. Some people didn’t make it out.
Sue and I drove away just in time to make it all the way down the hill. There were two routes to leave the area, and we both decided to take the road on the right. We knew a couple who also took two cars yet drove in separate directions; one made it, the other didn’t.
Julia Graves ’90 and Carl Mahoney let us stay with them that afternoon. Julia was Sue’s roommate at UCSD, and they had been friends since freshman year. A 49ers game played on the TV, and they showed video of the smoke and talked about the fire. It was surreal to watch our neighborhood burn, not knowing if anything would be left.
Later that night, we stayed with Stacey (Bowman) Levy ’89 and her husband Evan in Walnut Creek. I’d known Stacey since freshman year and met Evan while they were dating. Knowing we had more UCSD friends willing to take us in was a tremendous help. We were both in such shock that we didn’t know where to start or what to do. Stacey and Evan made us feel welcome and helped us start recovering.
A week later, we were allowed to return to what was left of our house. We walked through the charred remains looking for anything that could be salvaged. Even today, I can remember what we lost in the fire: a neon red heart that I made in the Craft Center for Sue, a one-of-a-kind drawing our artist friend Sharon made for us, yearbooks with signatures from friends that we will never get to read again.
I took a brick from the fireplace, and I still have it today. In the rubble, I did find a few memories of UCSD—some coins from a study abroad trip to Russia and a Russian teacup. The teacup was made of bone china, which is fired at very high heat, so it withstood the heat and flames. I keep it now on a bookshelf in my office and sometimes, when I look at it, I think back on the journey of that cup and the life Sue and I have been able to build together.
We were only a month into our married lives together in a city where we knew very few people when we lost nearly everything. But what we found was UCSD friends willing and able to help in our time of need. Roughly 30 years later, we are still in touch, and we still appreciate their help and support.
Evan ’90 and Susan (Hamilton) Weisenfeld ’90 met on campus as Revelle College orientation leaders in 1988. They now live in Boston, Massachusetts.
Did fellow alumni help you through hardship? Share your story: