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Anchorage rallies around woman who kept a patient safe through the earthquake as a fire raged at her own home

  • Author: Madeline McGee
  • Updated: December 10, 2018
  • Published December 9, 2018

Rebecca Hatley and her daughter Aniah Hatley, 13, stand outside their fire-damaged home Saturday in Anchorage. Hatley, a dental anesthesia assistant, was sedating a patient on Nov. 30 when the magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck, causing a gas pipe to break, which started a fire in her apartment. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

If Rebecca Hatley had gone home right away after the earthquake struck last week, her apartment might still be standing. She knew she had a job to do, though.

Hatley, a dental anesthesia assistant from Anchorage, was sedating a patient that Friday morning when the ground started to shake. She and John Leach, the anesthesiologist she was assisting, knew they couldn’t afford to be distracted from their task. Their job was to protect the boy they had just rendered unconscious, so Hatley said that as much as she needed to be home, she couldn’t leave. The two kept working.

“It was almost as though they didn’t know an earthquake was going on,” said Meghan Foster, a dentist at Denali Pediatric Dentristy, where Hatley was working when the earthquake hit.

Even after the earthquake was over, Leach said Hatley wanted to stay and help, but he encouraged her to go home. Her 13-year-old daughter Aniah had been calling her asking to be picked up from school. Hatley’s sister, who was in the process of moving in with them, picked her up instead.

Because of the traffic, it took Hatley more than half an hour to get home. On her way, she passed a home that was on fire and started to get a sinking feeling in her gut.

When she finally pulled into the parking lot of her Airport Heights apartment complex, the air smelled of smoke. At first, she didn’t suspect it might be coming from her own home, but as she approached the door, she heard the smoke detectors sounding.

“I put the key in the door and I turned it, and as soon as I opened it, the smoke just barreled out and I heard the back window shatter,” Hatley said. “And at that point, I didn’t know what to do.”

Rebecca Hatley, an Anchorage dental anesthesia assistant, lost everything she owned in a fire caused by last week's earthquake. By the time she arrived home, her Airport Heights apartment was already engulfed in flames. (Photo by Rebecca Hatley)

A gas pipe had broken. She tried to call 911, but the phone lines had been damaged by the earthquake. Neighbors brought fire extinguishers over, but at that point the fire was too large to be contained. By the time the fire department arrived, Hatley and her daughter could do nothing but watch as the home they shared together disappeared in the flames.

Everything had been lost — including the only photos Hatley still had of her parents, who are both deceased now.

“It was everything I’ve worked so hard all these years for, destroyed in a matter of seconds, minutes,” she said.

In the midst of everything, her thoughts turned to Leach, her boss. The two had only been working together for about six months, but since she knew he was fairly new to Alaska, she wanted to call and make sure he and his family were safe, she said.

“Are you guys doing OK?” was the first thing she asked, Leach said. Then she told him her home was on fire.

“Oh, there goes the roof,” he heard her say.

Hatley moved into a hotel downtown temporarily, but she said the arrangements are starting to get a bit cramped — especially since, between her and her daughter, emotions are running high.

“I’ve been trying to be strong for her," she said. “So sometimes when I’m upset, I’ll go into the bathroom and hide.”

She returned to work the following Monday, wanting a distraction, she said. The news about her home circulated quickly within the tight-knit dental community in Anchorage. Foster, the dentist whose practice Hatley had been working in when the earthquake hit, was especially determined to help.

“It’s fight or flight or freeze, and that’s what I did," Hatley said. “I didn’t know what to do, and they immediately sprung into action."

Aniah Hatley, 13, peers inside their fire-damaged home Saturday. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Foster suggested her office forgo their usual holiday gift exchange and instead hold a donation drive for Hatley’s family. She asked Hatley to make a list of everything she needed replaced in her home.

“Of course, she’s the most selfless human being on the planet, so she replies with, like, four things,” Foster said.

Instead, Foster and her colleagues compiled a much lengthier list and circulated it to neighbors, colleagues, book groups and church communities. The response was immediate. Text messages starting coming in asking, “what about this, what about this,” Foster said. Goods starting showing up on Foster’s doorstep.

Within 24 hours, Foster said, almost everything on the list had been checked off. By Friday, only two items were left.

“It’s been a good demonstration of how giving our community is,” Foster said.

The dentists drove around to collect the items and stored them in their own homes, and Leach said he’s hoping having household goods provided for will take some of the burden off of Hatley’s wallet. By Friday, her GoFundMe page had risen nearly $4,000.

Without that help, Hatley said she didn’t know where she’d be.

“I don’t know how to thank everyone that’s reached out,” she said.

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