The searing flames came raging from the Encinitas pet store in the middle of the night, driving Jason Del Monte backward with their power. But all the teen-ager could think about was the beautiful red parrot.
Del Monte and two friends were the first witnesses to arrive at the scene of a devastating fire that struck a suburban North County pet store just after midnight Monday, claiming the lives of more than 500 exotic birds, reptiles, fish, rabbits, cats, guinea pigs and other animals.
Fearing that some store workers might still be trapped inside, the 18-year-old Leucadia resident made a frantic rescue attempt--all the while imagining the exotic bird that had caught his eye at the store so many times before.
As a friend called 911, Del Monte used a skateboard to smash the glass door of the Best Pets Center near Encinitas Boulevard and El Camino Real. Then he covered his eyes, nose and mouth and crawled inside.
In an interview Tuesday, the MiraCosta College freshman described the horrible scene of hundreds of trapped animals screaming, squawking and cawing for their lives.
"It was just terrible," he said. "You could hear the cages rattling and the animals running around. The birds were crying. At first it sounded like monkeys screaming. And then it was more like people. I couldn't breathe or see anything. It was like some monster movie. I won't ever forget it."
Keeping low to the floor, Del Monte said he called out continually to anyone who might be trapped in the store. And he cried out for the red parrot.
"I kept thinking to myself that I wanted to get to that red parrot," he said. "I wanted to see if I could save his life."
The teen said he been to the store just Sunday afternoon to visit the friendly 12-inch parrot with the 2-foot-long tail. The bird, which was often perched near the cash register, would playfully catcall and mimic customers.
On the last visit, Del Monte said, the parrot daintily walked along his arm and pecked harmlessly at his watch. But no matter how much he would have liked to own the graceful creature, Del Monte said, the $2,200 price tag was simply too much to pay.
Early Monday, as he crawled along the pet store floor toward the cash register, the flames and smoke finally overtook him. Del Monte retreated through the shattered door, pulling outside a 30-gallon terrarium holding several lizards and frogs.
"You know, now that I'm 18 years old, I thought I was too old to have nightmares," he said. "But the last two nights I've woken up thinking about that bird. It was in the store somewhere. And I couldn't get to it."
Authorities said Tuesday that the fire was apparently started by an electrical shortage near the rear of the store, causing an estimated $750,000 in damages.
Encinitas Fire Marshal Ron McCarver said that, although he appreciated the rescue effort, the youth most likely fanned the fire by breaking the windows.
"We probably wouldn't have been able to save the animals anyway, but when he broke the window, he gave that fire a much-needed boost of oxygen. The windows eventually blew out themselves from all the heat.
"And if that boy would have been standing there when they did, he wouldn't be alive today."
McCarver said the fire has inspired a flood of grief from local residents, some of whom stood weeping in the parking lot as firefighters from several companies battled the blaze.
"There were a lot of devastated people out there," he said. "The store, I understand, was like a child's petting zoo. There were always kids there, school tours to see and touch the animals."
The veteran firefighter said people often react emotionally when animals die tragically in fires.
"What gets to people is that a lot of these animals were trapped in the cages," he said. "I hear that a couple of snakes were able to slither off, but most of the animals were helpless--and that bothers people. I mean, I have a dog myself. And it's pretty important to me."
Del Monte, who wears a brace on his arm from a recently broken wrist, said he cut his finger pulling the terrarium from the smoky store. Then he and his friends walked to the other end of the parking lot, because the sounds of the screaming animals so upset them, said friend David Stonerock.
As firefighters fought the blaze, Del Monte stayed on the scene and asked if he might take the lizards and frogs home.
"I don't know, I just wanted to keep them as sort of a memento," he said. "I have some fish tanks at home, and I like pets. But it was more of a thing to remind me of that bird."
Del Monte talked with several firefighters, who told him that the decision about the lizards and frogs was up to the owner.
McCarver said Tuesday that they had been returned to the pet store owner, who could not be reached for comment.
"I guess it wouldn't hurt to give the boy the animals," McCarver said. "It might be some good therapy for him for what he's been through."
And, although he knows now that rescuers are not necessarily keepers, Del Monte says he would repeat his efforts despite the opinions of firefighters.
"Yeah, I'd do it again," he said. "I just think that those animals and maybe some people that might have been inside, are more important than the property."
Meanwhile, Del Monte said he left a note inside the terrarium and is awaiting word from the pet store owner.
"Hi," it reads. "My name is Jason Del Monte. I pulled this terrarium out of the fire. And I was wondering if I could have these lizards and frogs. It would mean a lot to me."