Far from island, some can only wait in the dark

Times Staff Writer

She had forgotten her white-gold senior class ring and quinceanera video but had pocketed mascara and a cellphone charger before flames chased her from Santa Catalina Island. But as dawn began to loom Friday, 18-year-old Daisy Saldana began to catalog things that were tougher to grasp: whether the 2 a.m. ferry had docked in Long Beach with her boyfriend on board, whether her childhood home in Avalon was torched.

She leaned on a bleacher in a gym at Cabrillo High School in Long Beach, the harsh indoor light a stark contrast to the video she played on her phone. On the tiny screen, the island was blackened; flames crested its hills. Saldana tapped the image. "That's my home," she said.

The hours after the Catalina blaze chewed through 4,000 acres and raced toward Avalon were haunting in their familiarity: Red Cross volunteers commandeer a community center and high school, offering apple juice and gray blankets to evacuees whose faces are marked with disbelief. It's a scene that has played out too many times in fire-prone Southern California.

As daybreak approached, a common theme emerged among about 100 people stuck on green cots in the gym and yearning for showers: They were pushing through the night with bawling children, absent parents, prized mementos lost to flames and no certainty as to what the morning would bring.

Saldana, her voice unshaken, sunglasses perched on her forehead, recalled staring at the charred island while the ferry made its way to the mainland. She sighed. "I bet when I get back, the island's all burned up."

Keeping busy

Two Long Beach city buses -- the first to pick up ferry passengers -- braked outside a community center about 10 p.m. Thursday, spitting out child after child and a few adults. They clutched plastic bags, shivered under hooded sweatshirts and halted in front of the lobby's television, where the evening news flickered. When a Red Cross worker clicked off the program, more than one parent began to weep.

Away from a jumble of English and Spanish chattering, Matilde Martinez, 15, plopped in a corner and with assembly-line precision, folded each T-shirt she had jammed into a garbage bag. She couldn't bring the dress she wore to her quinceanera on Wednesday night, however. It was blue, with spaghetti straps.

Before the fire sparked Thursday, a day when Matilde stayed home from school, her dad had clocked into his day job, delivering beverages. He called at lunchtime to remind her that it was Mother's Day in Mexico.

"We were just about to get [my mom] flowers when [she] told us to come home," said Matilde, creasing another T-shirt. As of Friday morning, she still hadn't spoken to her father again. Luis Martinez is a volunteer firefighter.

He told his wife when the flames kicked up that "he'd try to stop it with the other firefighters," said Matilde, lowering her dark eyes. "I keep wondering whether they'll stop it soon. There's a lot of things going on in my head: What's going to happen? What's going to be left?"

Finished with the T-shirts, Matilde turned to cradling her 6-month-old brother, James. It was something to do when there was nothing else to be done.

'All burned up'

Midnight approached in the community center. Children scurried to the game room for marbles and Candy Land. Red Cross workers distributed plastic appetizer plates topped with cheese. The city buses returned to scoop up about 60 people who had nowhere to sleep and deposited them at the sprawling Cabrillo campus, where the ticket booth outside the gym was shuttered, but the "home" and "visitor" gym doors were unlocked.

Past the blinking scoreboard that announced "Home of the Jaguars," Maralisa Yturri, 48, stewed. She and her blue-visored caregiver, Phyllis Knaus, 59, who live in Oceanside, were stranded.

Yturri and Knaus had driven to Newport Beach last weekend, then crossed the Pacific to Catalina Canyon Resort. "We didn't even get to use the swimming pool or the spa," Knaus said.

The blaze prompted the women to leave their paddle boat. They had to beg the resort manager to dart into their room for blood pressure and diabetes medications. The manager had also snatched a yellow and brown comforter for the women, who had spread it over Cabrillo's gym bleachers.

"Now my irreplaceable antique T-shirts of Stevie Nicks are all burned up," Yturri grumbled. Knaus' mouth pinched into a line.

As the gym clock ticked to 1 a.m., the women stared at the bustling Red Cross table. It was hard not to. Volunteers sifted through at least 80 people who needed towels, pillows, pizza, Fritos, bottled water, Rice Krispies bars, soda and sleep. "How many in your family? Ten?" Many workers plowed straight through to dawn.

For hours, Long Beach Councilwoman Tonia Reyes Uranga -- in a black suit that somehow had remained unwrinkled -- had been translating for Spanish-speakers. There was a man in a cowboy hat and a girl in a frilly white, pink and purple dress.

The crowd trickled onto their cots. Someone lightly snored. Daisy Saldana slouched on the bleachers, elbows resting on knees. She could not sleep, not with her phone jangling and so much unresolved.

Away from home

As she tells it, Saldana was to be named "Catalina," until an aunt's dog died and she became its namesake. She has always lived on the island, for the last dozen years in a three-bedroom apartment with her mother and older brother. Catalina, she said, was dreary for teenagers, but it was tightknit and charming and "so small-town."

On Thursday, Saldana was training a co-worker at the Catalina Island Inn's front desk when sirens began screaming. A friend called her on the phone: "Everybody's got to get out." Saldana ducked out of work, ran to her apartment and gathered 10 shirts, five pairs of pants, two pairs of shoes, but not her photo albums. She lamented that.

Back behind the desk at the inn, her breathing became so labored that her co-worker pleaded, "Stop, Daisy, stop." Finally, she and her family jostled onto the ferry, where babies wailed and workers passed out bags in which passengers could vomit.

Saldana gripped her cellphone and recorded Avalon's most disastrous fire in 92 years. She replayed it several times at Cabrillo High School.

Inside the gym, the clock pushed to 2 a.m. Saldana haggled with volunteers about how she could get an asthma inhaler; her breathing was labored and her throat raw. Do you have a prescription, she was asked. A health insurance card? Anything? No, no, no.

She sank onto the bleachers, constantly on the phone; she could have passed for a receptionist taking a busy office's calls. A Red Cross official named Margaret Arbini Madonna strolled over and clasped Saldana's hand. "I don't want to go back," Saldana told her. "I don't want to see it all burned." The teenager paused. "The island, it can sink in the water?"

"No, it's on top of the mountain," said Madonna, clasping tighter. "There will be someone in the morning who will help you put your life back together."

The next half-hour was a promising start: As the others slumbered, Saldana's boyfriend arrived unscathed. She wouldn't know about her home's fate for hours. So the couple chatted warmly and held hands, waiting for daylight to break.


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