Sam Valencia doesn’t view himself as a hero. He says that anyone would have done what he did. Though not a firefighter or a designated first responder, the 30-year-old father of two children saved the lives of at least six people from fire on Oct. 8.
Valencia, who works as a waiter at Bistro Don Giovanni and as caretaker of property on Atlas Peak Road, got a phone call from his buddy, Kevin Robledo, Sunday night warning him to “get out” because a fire was headed his way.
Valencia thought Robledo was joking because the two had been kidding around at a Raiders game earlier in the day, but looking outside he realized his friend’s call was no joke.
“I saw the trees moving and turned around. There was nothing but orange flames,” Valencia said.
Relieved that his wife and children were out of danger because they were visiting her parents, he ran to warn his landlord’s family, who visit the property on weekends. His sense of urgency increased because he’d seen their grandchildren there the day before.
After waking and warning them, he ran back to his own house and grabbed his dog, Mia, and the box that contained his important papers — “my marriage license and birth certificates.”
He remembered to get the jar of money filled with his weekly tips and jumped into his 2004 Chevy Tahoe.
Driving down the road, he stopped and knocked on the doors of neighbors, and kept ringing doorbells until he got an answer or was certain they had already left.
Traveling down Atlas Peak Road, he saw a Toyota pickup on the side of the road.
“I stopped because its rear wheel was off the ground and the tires were spinning,” Valencia said. “That meant they couldn’t get out. A couple was inside.”
Valencia rolled his window down and told the couple in the truck to get in his Tahoe with their dog.
“If this fellow hadn’t come down the hill when he did, we wouldn’t be here today. He shouted to us, ‘Get in or you are dead,’” said John McKay.
“He saved our lives,” said McKay, who along with his wife, Glyneth Sakahara, has been telling people in town about the “hero” who rescued them from the flames.
McKay said that he and his wife had looked out the window just as they were about to go to bed. “The whole horizon was orange,” he said.
They realized there was a fire and were driving away but found it difficult to see the road clearly.
“Near the bottom of Atlas Peak Road, a fireball came right over the top of us. It passed so quickly that it didn’t damage the truck, but it caused us to go into the ditch,” said McKay.
The McKays gratefully got into Valencia’s vehicle when he came along.
As Valencia and the McKays and the two dogs got a little farther down Atlas Peak road they came across a woman in the road who was waving her arms and screaming that people were trapped inside a nearby house.
Getting out of his vehicle, with the intention of helping the trapped people, Valencia told the couple to take his car to get away. He said to watch over his dog; he’d find them later.
In the rush of events, they didn’t exchange phone numbers.
Valencia ran toward the home with the trapped couple inside but the whole house was engulfed in fire and he couldn’t help them. He found out later that the home belonged to Charles and Sara Rippey, an elderly couple who died in the fire.
“Everything felt so surreal,” Valencia said. “I try not to dwell on negative things, but I feel sorrow for them—the couple that passed away.”
When an ambulance, two fire trucks and a sheriff’s vehicle came to the scene. Valencia put the woman, who had flagged him down, inside the sheriff’s vehicle and ran to other homes to warn more people.
In jumping an eight-foot wall to get to other homes, Valencia sprained an ankle. It was also becoming harder for him to breathe the smoke-filled air, so he finally left the area. A policeman drove him to Napa where he went to Queen of the Valley Medical Center and had X-rays.
“That guy’s a hero. He helped us. He helped a lot of people that night,” said John Porfidio, a neighbor who lives about half a mile up the road from Valencia.
When Valencia woke them up, it took John Porfidio and his wife Dorothy less than five minutes to jump in their vehicle and drive toward safety.
“We took nothing,” Porfidio said. “You couldn’t imagine the flames coming at us. The flames were 40-50 feet high. The flames were going over our vehicle and we could feel the heat. I don’t know how we got down the road, there were so many curves and smoke.”
“I live on the moon now. There are no neighbors,” Porfidio said. “Every other house burned. The shrubs are gone and the smell …. The man upstairs must have been on our side.”
“I think we would have died of smoke inhalation if Sam hadn’t come along when he did,” Porfidio said.
The Porfidio’s daughter, Debbie Porfidio, is grateful that Valencia set aside his own safety to help others, like her parents, on Atlas Peak Road.
“Sam is just awesome,” she said. “He really saved a lot of lives. I saw him the next day at CVS and thanked him. He was so humble. He acted like he didn’t do anything that everyone else wouldn’t have done.”
Valencia’s landlord, Dave Melnick, had no time to grab even his cellphone, after Valencia banged on the door and yelled “get out.” Taking only his wallet and keys, he and Marilyn, were driving down the road within minutes.
“Sam saved my life and Marilyn’s too,” Melnick said. “I was actually asleep.”
“I’m not sure how long it took to get to safety. I was focusing solely on getting down the hill. The fire was coming down the hill rapidly. You could see the flames and embers were coming down. We passed fire trucks coming up.”
“I think Sam is quite a hero in this whole thing,” Melnick said. “He’s really a good guy. He deserves to be honored in some way. He has been caretaker here about one and a half years.”
Though Melnick’s home burned, the couple are grateful that they escaped with their lives.
“You can always replace a house and furniture, pictures, and material things,” he said. “We didn’t lose our lives and we weren’t physically injured. The grandchildren had already left before the fire came.”
The couple live in San Francisco during the week and spend weekends on the Napa property. Melnick, who has owned his 13-acre property at 2331 Atlas Peak Road for 30 years, said he plans to rebuild.
When Valencia went back to pull the McKay’s truck from the ditch, the keys were still in the ignition. At that point, cellphone service was lost but by checking the truck’s registration, he found the couple’s address and went there. Miraculously, the McKays were there with his Chevy Tahoe and their home was still standing. Vehicles and grateful hugs were exchanged.
Asked why he risked his own life to help others, Valencia says, “It was my duty. Anyone else would have done the same thing.”