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ON CALIFORNIA

The Man Who Saved His House

October 29, 1993|PETER H. KING

LAGUNA BEACH — Only after the battle is finished are the stories told. On Thursday evacuees stood in clusters on the beach and pointed toward the canyons, tracing the path the fire had followed to the sea. "Right there," a man said. "That's where my house was." Was.

News crews congregated where damage was heaviest, on the winding, hill streets that loom high over downtown. For every camera there was a victim with a story. Often they spoke in frantic rushes. "Please, please, one at a time," a television producer scolded three young survivors. "If you keep stepping on each other you are not going to be on television. "

On one burnt-out block, a man stood transfixed before a smoldering heap. The man's mouth hung open, but he said nothing. In saying nothing, he said much. Debris hinted at what it must have been like--the furious rush of flame, the fast retreat. Cars were abandoned at weird angles, their windows shattered, their bumpers bent. In front of one ruined house lay a melted water bucket and a tangled garden hose; there was no one around to elaborate.

Certain anecdotes were in circulation. You heard the same ones again and again. The man who beat evacuation roadblocks by chartering a boat; he swam the final yards into shore and saved his house. The woman who hastily organized a neighborhood evacuation, only to be left behind herself; she was found the next morning, terrified and dazed, huddled in a house that had escaped the flames.

*

One of the better battle stories involved the saving of a single house. I heard it first down on the beach. I heard it next firsthand, at 838 La Vista Drive, a house on a street that had lost many houses. It is a two-story house made of cinder blocks and stucco, with wooden windows and a shake roof. David Koorajian helped his father build the house 20 years ago. His father has since died, and Koorajian lives there with his wife and infant daughter.

"I couldn't stand to see the house we built go up," he said later, when it was over and his skin was scratched from the brush, and his shorts and basketball shoes were smudged with soot, and his muscles were cramped. Koorajian is 36 years old. He plays a lot of beach volleyball--more, in fact, than he would prefer. He was a computer salesman before his company went bust. Now he is an economic statistic. And so he was home Wednesday when a friend suggested he start hosing down the roof.

"The fire was pretty far off," he recalled. "And some of the neighbors thought we were crazy." By sundown, most of these neighbors were in flight. Winds were hurtling down the canyon, carrying fire. "We saw nothing but flames coming down the street at us," Koorajian said, "and everything up above us was burning."

Houses above and beside Koorajian's exploded in flame. Embers started landing on his roof. The electricity failed. And then the water. A crew of firemen arrived and watched. With no water, there was nothing the firemen could do. Koorajian raided the refrigerator.

"We were pouring anything we could find on the hot spots," he said. "We used milk, sodas, bottled water, Gatorade." His fence caught fire; they hacked it down. Same with a tree. The wooden window frames caught fire. They shook up cans of Diet Coke and directed fizz on the flames. It worked, for a moment.

"I thought we had lost the house," Koorajian said.

He resisted the temptation to run. The house above had added a pool. Koorajian had protested at the time, arguing it would create a landslide danger. The City Council had rebuffed him. "I was lucky," he said. Now his friend and volleyball partner, a Navy vet named Hans Smith, had an idea. He grabbed long planks and fashioned a gangway from the pool to Koorajian's roof. They grabbed garbage cans and started a bucket brigade. For hours they toted water. Flames on either side created a blistering gauntlet. Smith would dive into the pool before each trip. Koorajian wrapped himself in soaked towels.

"I don't know how many times we went back and forth," Koorajian said. "I was cramping up at the end. A couple times I thought my clothes were on fire. Hans was coughing up blood."

Finally, the firemen who had watched the effort found a small water tanker and joined the fight. The wind shifted. The worst seemed over. It was then that eight police officers showed up and ordered Koorajian to come down or be taken to jail. He walked away, only to slip back minutes later. He stayed on the roof until the sun came up.

"I saved my house," he said Thursday morning. And then he repeated it. "I saved my house."

And maybe he was foolish, even wrong, to stay and do so. And certainly he was lucky. But on the morning after, David Koorajian did have a story to tell. And a house.

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