What if ‘it’ were to happen to you?

Bob Medina had wondered how he’d react if he were the guy facing disaster. If, all of a sudden, the danger wasn’t abstract, if he wasn’t reading about someone else in the paper or watching them on TV, but contemplating that this time he might be the victim.

Medina found out this weekend. He learned what it’s like not to know whether you’ve lost everything or lost nothing. He learned what it’s like when “it” happens to you.

Medina, a 43-year-old Cal State Fullerton grad student in history who’d begun his Saturday attending a morning lecture in Irvine, was listening to the radio as he headed home on the 55 Freeway. He could see smoke in the distance but hadn’t heard that the Freeway Complex fire had jumped into the Cascades complex in Anaheim Hills where he lived. But as he peeled off onto the eastbound 91 and the traffic slowed toward his Weir Canyon Road exit, a sense of dread overtook him. When he couldn’t get off the freeway, he had to stay on the 91, taking him right past the fire that looked like it was engulfing his complex.

The Cascades are billed as “luxury apartments,” but the price tag has as much to do with the neighborhood as anything else. He shares a two-bedroom with his brother Alex and Alex’s girlfriend, Robin, and they pay about $1,840 a month.

The burning apartments were on the east end of the complex and his is on the west end, a couple of hundred yards or so away.


His first thought was a rational one: “I had to get home and get the family pictures,” he said.

That proved impossible. He tried to get off the freeway and onto Santa Ana Canyon Road, to no avail. He found himself instead being swept up in the traffic flow on the 71 Freeway toward Chino Hills.

His emotions as he was headed away from his home were measured. No screams, no angry shouts. He muttered expletives, but only in awed realization that, this time, one of life’s calamities might literally be at his doorstep.

Although Medina considers himself “blessed,” he didn’t invoke prayer. He thought of all the mundane things that have upset him -- like doing poorly on tests or getting into petty arguments -- and thought that they weren’t in the same universe as this.

Maybe that’s why he didn’t pray. Instead, the sight of the leaping flames was so powerful that he thought nothing could be done about them.

So, rather than dial God, he talked to family members. He’s especially close to two young men he has helped raise, calling them his “nephews” and treating them like sons. He phoned them and told them not to worry. He eventually got off the 71 and stopped at a Wal-Mart in Chino Hills sometime in the midafternoon. He made more phone calls, and one of the nephews said he’d heard the fires hadn’t destroyed the entire complex. It was his first glimmer of hope that all might not be lost.

Not sure what to do, Medina stayed put. He killed enough time in the Wal-Mart retail complex so that when 9 p.m. rolled around, he went to the new James Bond movie. Afterward, with the day nearly gone and still not knowing whether he had any possessions, he returned to his parents’ home in Brea, another area where the fires had attacked.

When he got there around midnight, his brother had news. Growing impatient, Alex had taken a less obvious route into the complex and found their apartment unscathed.

You’d think that would have given Medina a restful night’s sleep.

“I tossed and turned,” he says. “I watched it become daylight. I turned on the news and was thinking, ‘I want to get back to the place.’ ”

We were talking Sunday morning outside the Cascades entrance. The crowd of residents grew from a few dozen to about 100 as the morning progressed, all waiting to learn when they could inspect their units.

Medina wasn’t completely relieved. The sight of the burning complex hadn’t left him, and a firefighter told him that one ember could land in the wrong spot and start things again. Medina wanted to get those family pictures out.

At 2:30 Sunday afternoon, he did. He, Alex and Robin got some things out, uncertain if they’d be allowed to return that night.

Opening the front door to discover an intact apartment was a great feeling, Medina said.

He went to his bedroom and saw the orange juice and baked-chicken TV dinner he’d had for breakfast 30 hours earlier. There was a slight smell of smoke in the room. “Every bit of dust is great to see,” he says.

He’d been one of the lucky ones. Initial reports indicate that about 10 of the complex’s 27 buildings were damaged so badly that the tenants couldn’t return.

Joy? “I wouldn’t say it’s really joy,” he says. “But yesterday, it wasn’t rendering sadness, either. Maybe it’s so big I couldn’t process it.”

He knows that some in the group waiting with him have lost all their possessions.

While he saved his family pictures, other people probably did not. He knows other people now have life-changing concerns to deal with, but for him things soon will return to normal.

About to leave, I thank him for his time.

“It’s good to talk,” he says. “It’s like therapy.”