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Life-or-Death Choices on Staying or Fleeing

October 28, 2003|Scott Glover, Jack Leonard and Megan Garvey | Times Staff Writers

LAKE VIEW HILLS ESTATES — The phone woke Joe McLean shortly after 3 a.m. Sunday and outside he saw the red glow of flames in the hills surrounding his rural San Diego County home.

He woke his daughter and wife, then alerted a few neighbors. Up and down the winding canyon roads, residents were waking to the smell of smoke and the noise of barking dogs and honking horns.

With no help from fire crews and no instructions from authorities, families packed up cars, and others set out on foot. There was only one way out: Muth Valley Road.

Neighbors in this tight-knit community just south of the San Vicente Reservoir had only minutes to make choices. By dawn, four who lived on the street would be dead, and half the homes would be destroyed. On Monday, the survivors told their stories.

The McLeans had the best vantage point in the hilly neighborhood of 10 custom homes. They could see towering flames closing in and wasted no time collecting possessions.

In three separate cars, the McLeans were the first through the neighborhood's security gate about 3:15 a.m.

Concerned the electricity would fail and the families would be trapped, Bob Daly, 75, had opened the gate when he got word of the fire from McLean. Then Daly headed back home.

Along the bending Muth Valley Road, fire rose as high as the neighborhood's towering pine trees. Joe McLean, 46, trailed his wife and daughter, raising his hand as he drove to shield his eyes from the heat. He worried that heat would melt the plastic windows in the ragtop Jeep driven by his 18-year-old daughter Jennifer.

Rodney Weichelt, 35, and his father, Bob, 59, were close behind. They could see McLean ahead. Embers pelted Rodney Weichelt's van, sounding to him like machinegun fire. He dripped with sweat.

At his home up the road, Stephen Shacklett, 55, corralled his four Irish wolfhounds, got them into his RV and drove toward the gate. His girlfriend, Cheryl Jennie, 59, was still at the house, planning to leave soon in her own car.

Natalie Corbett, 39, was in the neighborhood that night to housesit. She called 911, and the operator told her she was on her own. Corbett asked if she should leave. The operator said to go if she thought she could make it.

Corbett loaded her dog into her Bronco and fled past the gate, driving through a curtain of fire. A fallen cable was stretched tight across the road and flipped her truck, sending it skidding. Surrounded by flames, the Bronco resting on its side, Corbett wrapped herself and the dog in a sunshade and prepared to die, sucking on a wetted washcloth she had brought with her.

Other families were still at home.

The Hamiltons -- Steve, his pregnant wife, Jodi, and their toddler son -- had decided to take two cars. At first they could smell smoke but couldn't see even a glow. Hurrying but not frantic, they began packing collectibles and photo albums. Steve Hamilton, 43, took their 2-year old son Alexander in his car. Jodi Hamilton, 38, put their boxer, Libby, in hers.

Larry Redden, 64, had awakened at 12:30 a.m. to the smell of smoke. Redden, who retired last year after three decades with the San Diego Fire Department, walked out on his deck to check on the fire, then went back to bed. He and his wife, Laureen, 44, woke again when McLean called. The Reddens roused her parents, who lived with them, and got ready to leave.

The Shohara family -- James, Solange and their grown son Randy -- were the newest family in the neighborhood. At their home near the gated entry, they too prepared to flee.

About the same time, Bob Daly and his wife, Barbara, 67, pulled out of their driveway.

By 3:30 a.m. the Hamiltons, Reddens, Shoharas, Dalys and Cheryl Jennie formed a six-car caravan through the entry gate. With Redden leading, they were stopped by wall of fire. The families turned around and headed home, wondering what to do next.

At their expansive Spanish-style home, Steve Hamilton, vice president of a construction company, began moving vehicles and equipment out of the garage as his wife and son waited. Jodi couldn't understand why Steve was wasting time. Nearly hysterical, she woke up her mother in Connecticut to tell her the fire was close. Her mother, who had visited before, told Jodi to take her son and head for the nearby reservoir. Leave Steve behind if you have to, she advised.

The Dalys conferred with the Shoharas, who were walking toward a dirt road to the reservoir. I don't think you should go down there, Bob Daly told them, it's too rough a road.

Solange Shohara told him they were going anyway.

Minutes later, the Dalys considered following. They walked in the same direction as the Shoharas, but after taking a look down the access road, his vision blurred by smoke, Bob Daly made a decision.

No way, he told his wife. We're going back to the house to jump in the pool.

Jennie cast her lot with the Reddens and followed them back to their tiled-roof home. You look like you know what you're doing, she told the retired firefighter.

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