When fire engulfed her Paradise, California, neighborhood like a swarm of hungry locusts, Andrea Gaylord faced a split-second choice: flee with the family members piled into her car or risk almost certain death for all by searching for those who did not respond to her call.
Gaylord chose to flee.
It was a decision she may have second-guessed a hundred times, because those left behind were every bit as precious to her as the ones she was saving.
Her two outdoor guard dogs, Madison and Miguel, did not come down off those rolling woodlands with their human family. In what proved to be the deadliest fire in California history, the chances for survival of anyone left behind were dim. Even as she raced past walls of flame - consumed by the immediate task of living - a deep regret set in.
“I felt so horrible leaving them,” Gaylord told NBC Nightly News about her shepherd mixes. “It was the worst feeling in the world.”
Paradise residents would not be allowed back to their fire-ravaged properties for more than a month. But that did not deter animal rescuers from sneaking in “behind the lines” to offer aid and comfort to any surviving animal companions.
Sheila Sullivan had learned of Gaylord’s plight and left food and water on the premises just in case.
“If they’re there, they won’t go hungry,” Sullivan said.
Gaylord was finally able to return to Paradise last week - only to find Madison standing where her house used to be. Miguel, who had been swept to safety by a rescue group, was also reunited with his family.
“There is a higher power,” Gaylord said. “Things are right again.”
Some of us may judge Gaylord for her decision, insisting we’d “never” leave a loved-one - human or animal companion - behind to face disaster and a high-probability of death.
It’s easy to quarterback from the comfort of our recliner nestled in our temperature-controlled den. We can say what we want. We can draft the perfect emergency exit plan. But there’s no way of knowing exactly how we would react until flames are licking our door. Or the flood rises above our car windows. Or the earth shakes the beams over our head.
No one is spared from making tough decisions in life. Some will have to do so in a crisis where other lives are directly threatened. Few will look out only for themselves. Many will rise to protect others.
Gaylord did everything she could until the last possible second to save everything that mattered to her. Ultimately, she did right by her family by weighing the greatest good for the greatest number - including herself. Without her, there would be one less person in the world to make a difference.
The depth of Gaylord’s angst over departing without Madison and Miguel is testament to her unconditional love. In the same way, her dogs’ survival speaks to their will to wait out the holocaust - and make their family whole again.