Irma Acosta’s life had been torn into two distinct pieces — the sunny times that came before a gunman walked into the Seal Beach salon where she worked and the emotionally hollowed-out days that came in its wake.
But one day in November, about six weeks after the murderous rampage that left workers and customers dead, Acosta got a phone call that opened a path for putting those pieces together.
It was Sandi Fannin, who owned Salon Meritage with her husband, Randy. He had been one of the eight people killed that fall afternoon.
Would Acosta be willing to reopen the salon?
Rarely impulsive, Acosta immediately knew her answer.
“I just said yes,” she said.
As the tight-knit community holds vigils, and churches open their doors to remember the victims a year after the darkest day in the little beach town’s history, some of the survivors are trying to write a new ending to a story shaped by tragedy.
The salon will reopen.
Days after the Oct. 12, 2011, massacre, Acosta pulled into the salon’s parking lot. The sadness was overwhelming.
“I lost so many of my close friends that day,” she said.
About a week later, Acosta and the other stylists who survived, accompanied by family and friends, crossed the threshold of the salon for the first time since the shooting to clean out the employee work stations. The smell of gunpowder had faded, but the salon felt cold and foreign.
“It didn’t feel like the same place,” said Acosta, a Cypress resident.
So she and Fannin decided the 1,200-square-foot salon, with black barber chairs and birch cabinets, should be gutted, taken down to the studs.
Each decision carried weight. The restroom — where two stylists hid from the bullets — was moved. The shampoo chairs — where Michelle Fournier was shot while working on fellow employee Christy Wilson’s hair — have been shifted to a different spot. The door that the shooter stormed through has been covered over by drywall. The signature awning captured in news photos of the death scene is gone.
Now, boxes containing new shampoo bowls and sleek silver barber chairs fill the shop, which should reopen within weeks. A travertine “M” — the old name will remain — is carved into the reception area, the design reminiscent of the old Salon Meritage logo.
Throughout the demolition, passersby sometimes grabbed a piece of the slate tile as a reminder. A spiritual counselor and a minister came to bless the salon. Sage was burned to cleanse the negative energy.
Acosta never took any keepsakes. To her, the space was about the people.
It was about Fournier’s laugh, or the way that the Fannins would stop whatever they were doing each time “Unchained Melody” came on the radio and dance with each other in the middle of the salon.
“It’s a dedication to them,” she said of the victims. “In a simple way, it helps us heal.”
The day of the shooting, as lives briefly intersected and then parted on what had seemed like just another busy Wednesday, Acosta had stepped out of the salon to grab a protein drink just minutes before chaos ensued.
It was that random order to things that spared some people their lives, while taking others.
A few months ago, Acosta was sizing chairs for the new salon when she had a flashback. She could hear the familiar sounds of the shop — Randy Fannin’s voice, the endless chatter, people laughing.
She believes Randy Fannin, with his charming and positive personality, would have wanted the salon to continue.
“It just didn’t feel right for us not to reopen,” she said. She didn’t want to give up, to let “him” win.
“Him” would be Scott Dekraai, the former tugboat captain and estranged husband of one of the salon stylists who faces eight counts of murder and a possible death sentence.
The massacre still reverberates in Seal Beach. People drive a little slower as they pass by the shop. One day, one of the first responders stopped by. People say they still offer prayers for those who were killed, and those who survived.
When builder Fernando Dutra started working on the salon remodel, bullet holes still pierced the bathroom wall.
“I wanted to walk away from here and forget what I’ve seen,” he said.
But he didn’t. Instead he listened to the dozens of people who stopped by to share memories. Some broke down and cried, he said. He heard about the lives that were lost, the brief moments of heroism inside the shop as the gunman fired.
The community cares and wants to see the business prosper, said Jim Watson, who owns the plaza where the salon is located. He has a hard time talking about the day.
“If they had not reopened I would respect it very much,” he said. “But I think it would have been a little bit of giving up.”
Colleen Grosso has been one of Acosta’s clients for more than a decade. After the shooting, Acosta and her two sons called each client to let them know she was OK.
Although Grosso said it could be “eerie” to walk back in the salon, she gives her full support to Acosta. “In a way, it’s kind of like having a lot of guardian angels in the shop,” she said.
After the shooting, a stylist had placed a photo on the door of the salon. It was a snapshot of the Salon Meritage employees, smiling and happy. It was taken at their last Christmas party, hosted by the Fannins.
Throughout the construction, the photo remained on the door. It faded. The corners curled. Finally, Dutra rolled it up and put it with his construction plans.
He looks at it every day. To him, it symbolizes what he’s working for — a rebirth.