'Hero nurse' who nearly lost her life in Camp Fire returns to hospital to help save lives

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A nurse, who narrowly escaped death in the Camp Fire in Butte County, is being called a hero.

Nichole Jolly said she went to work at Feather River Hospital Thursday morning when she was told the fire was racing toward the hospital and that patients had to be evacuated.

It was a mad scramble to get the patients out, but she and the staff succeeded. "I put them in wheelchairs and got them all out. I stayed till the last patient was out," Jolly wrote in a Facebook post.

The nurse then jumped into her own car to flee the fire but found herself trapped by flames. 

In an interview with KTVU, she described the moment as "a living nightmare" and said that never in her wildest dreams did she ever expect to be faced with such decisions of life and death: "Do I run through flames, you know? Do I stay in the car and burn possibly?" Jolly recalled the frantic thoughts that ran through her head.

None of the options seemed like a good one and so with the fire all around and her car starting to fill with smoke, she called her husband. 

"I told him I probably was not going to make it. I'm trapped and there's flames everywhere. I told him to take care of the kids and tell them I love them and I love him," she remembered saying.

But he was not going to accept what his wife was telling him, and his stern and direct response guided her to take action. "He told me, 'Don't die. Get out of that car and run. Don't die.'"

So that's exactly what she did. "I ran and I had to run through fire," Jolly said.

She approached the car in front of hers and saw the vehicle belonged to her close friend and fellow nurse, Karen Davis. She said she banged on the car window and couldn't open the door.

"It was melting front of my eyes, and I thought for sure, I just watched my best friend die right in front of me," Jolly said.

She knew she had to make the excruciating decision to leave her. "I had to move on, I had to keep going. I couldn't sit there and you know just pick up the pieces. I had to keep running," the nurse said. "That was absolutely devastating. That was one of the hardest moments I had to do right there." 

Jolly left her friend's car and just kept going. In the process of running through flames, she caught fire herself.

Up ahead she came upon a vehicle belonging to one of the doctors in the hospital. She jumped into Dr. Ruth McLarty's car and her burning pants melted a hole in the leather seat of the vehicle. She said she was able take a moment to catch her breath and she and the doctor prayed for their lives together, until that vehicle began to fill with smoke. So she got out and again started to run.

Outside the car, Jolly described the scene as being pitch black. The smoke-filled air was hot and she could feel herself running out of oxygen. 

"The asphalt was so hot, my shoes was just melting into the asphalt," Jolly described. 

She said she just blindly ran until she couldn't go another step. 

"This was truly the time I thought I'm dead because I couldn't see in front of me and I was running out of air. I pushed forward and God heard my prayers because I ran into a fire truck," Jolly said. "If that fire truck that I grabbed on to wasn't there, I would've gone down."   

She said she tried to bang on the side of the truck and found the vehicle's door had been melted off. But two firefighters heard her outside, swooped her into the vehicle and covered her with a blanket. 

Jolly said she felt relief wash over her in the safety of the fire crew. But that feeling didn't last long.

"The captain of the fire engine said we need air support. We're not going to make it. You need to brace yourself," the nurse told KTVU.

"We were trapped by cars on fire and trees falling around us. The wind was so bad it caused a fire tornado that took out a few cars," Jolly said.  

In that frantic moment, she heard fire dispatch respond by saying that there was absolutely no way to bring in air support. 

And then another life-saving miracle: "Within seconds -- It felt like minutes, but it was probably only seconds. A dozer out of nowhere came up and pushed cars out of the way and made a path for us," Jolly remembered, "and got us back to safety, back to the hospital, where I started all of this."

The fire truck was forced to turn around and she found herself headed back to Feather River Hospital. 

The drive back was frightening, as they passed her own car, now completely engulfed in flames, and there was heartbreak, as she looked outside and saw no sign of her friend Karen.

Back at the hospital she was met by more disaster, and she had to jump into work mode. "People were flooding in and I needed to stay busy," the nurse said. 

It was also back at the hospital she was met by another prayer answered. "I turned to and saw my beautiful friend Karen and we broke down crying in each other's arms," Jolly wrote in her post.

She described the reunion as absolutely amazing and said the pair held onto each other for the next couple of days until Davis was reunited with her family. 

"For the next few hours we treated patients side by side refusing to leave each other," she said. 

The two nurses both got to work, taking care of the patients injured by fire. Together they helped saved lives. "We were able to triage patients and take care of wounds, and take care of breathing issues... and just we said nope, we're not leaving each other again. We stayed right, hand in hand together, took care of patients and got them back to safety."

When asked how many patients she saw that did not make it, Jolly said she did not know. 

"I saw a lady die on a gurney and had to write time of death on her arm say a prayer and cover her up," she recalled.

Jolly said she and Davis remained on scene until all of the patients were evacuated.

"We had to witness our hospital burn to the ground. Karen and I were the last nurses to leave," she wrote on Facebook.

The nurses again fled the fire, this time transported by Dr. McLarty's car, which Jolly described as half burned.

The frightening ride took them again through flames, but they managed to arrive safely in Oroville.

Since that harrowing day when Jolly on numerous occasions, came as close as anyone can get to death, she has learned that she's lost her home in Paradise. She does not know the fate of her second home in Magalia, which as of Monday was being threatened by flames.

But amid the devastation, she is grateful. The mother of three is grateful for a community that has come together as the disaster continues to rage. When told she's being described as a "hero nurse," she was quick to say her best friend, Karen is the hero. 

And she expressed her love and appreciation for her friends and family.  

"I was able to reunite with my family and shared a long hug," the nurse said, adding it was a hug she'll never forget. "I'm lucky to be alive."


This story was reported from Oakland, Calif.