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A Father’s Agonizing Wait for His Family

Times Staff Writers

Gilberto Juarez saw the rush of chocolate-brown water coming at him, a 12-foot wave of mud, rock and car-sized boulders that ripped through Waterman Canyon, cleaving his family in half.

“I grabbed my 3-year-old and ran,” said the San Bernardino construction worker. “I stopped and turned around to look for my wife and 6-year-old, but they were gone.”

Juarez, his wife, Rosa, 40, and daughters, Katherine, 6, and Stephanie, 3, had been among 24 friends and relatives gathered for Christmas lunch Thursday at a creek-side campground in the San Bernardino Forest.

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Juarez said he and his family arrived about 11 a.m. A light rain fell. The group -- many of whom came from the same southern Guatemalan town, Tiquisate -- ate tamales and talked as children ran around the nearby grassy playground. The celebration went smoothly until just before 2 p.m. “We had finished lunch and we were starting to clean up,” said Juarez, 35. “Then it started to rain harder and suddenly everything started pouring down the mountains.”

Juarez said he clambered up a slippery 800-foot rise with Stephanie in his arms. For a moment, he stumbled and feared he would slide backward. Struggling back to his feet, he kept climbing.

At the crest of the hill, he looked back. A heavy mist made it impossible to see behind him. He started forward again.

“We made it out to the road, where we met a police officer who picked us up and took us down the mountain,” he said.

In the past, the 66-acre campground had provided a welcome respite for the Juarez family. Gilberto and his wife, a secretary in Riverside, were friends with the camp’s caretaker, Jorge Monzon.

But as the hours passed on Friday, the campground came to seem bleak and menacing.

For much of the day, Juarez waited for word of his wife and older daughter. He milled around the command post, a blue tent at 40th Street and Waterman Avenue, eyes lifting each time helicopters landed nearby.

The wait became so unbearable that Juarez and a small group of friends tried to hike the four to five miles through Waterman Canyon to the camp site. But after about a mile, the mud and debris became too much. Dejected and bedraggled, they turned back.

As the afternoon wore on, Juarez appeared dazed and, at one point, retreated near the men’s room, refusing to speak to anyone. Weeping, he clutched a cigarette in a shaky hand.

Nearby, a pastor led a group of about 50 survivors and their relatives in prayer intermittently throughout the day.

Among them was Mildred Najera, Juarez’s sister-in-law. She clutched photographs of her missing sister and niece. Sobbing, she described Katherine as “a very happy child who loved to play.”

Taking a breath, she composed herself.

“We’re here seeking information,” she said. “But the wait is difficult.”

Hours later, Juarez stood at a guardrail on Highway 18, shading his eyes from the sun and peering 300 feet down to the campsite. He pointed into the canyon, recognizing a blue van on an island of asphalt that was once a road. A door hung open.

“That van was one of ours,” he said.

Juarez watched as 70 recovery team members and a half-dozen search dogs scoured for signs of the missing.

They moved slowly; in some places, debris was stacked 15 feet high. They poked with poles and spades, searching for scraps of clothing, a shoe, any hint of those lost.

Juarez stared for several minutes, then hurled a water bottle to the ground in frustration and anger.

He walked away without saying a word.

*

Sahagun reported from Waterman Canyon and Fields from Los Angeles.


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