By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov
SUNSET, DOCKWEILER BEACH, THE FIRST DAY OF SUMMER. THE AIR IS STILL warm, and achingly clear and gold. The place is packed: If you want to light a fire and hang on the sand, these fire pits just south of Playa del Rey are about the only place to go. Everybody's here -- teenagers, kids, old people, black, white, Latino, sprawled on blankets and camp chairs arranged around huge ice chests, and feeling loose and good. Someone must be having a birthday; tied balloons bounce and bob in the breeze.
Then, around 8 o'clock, something starts happening near Tower 53. Four lifeguard trucks pull up, lights flashing, too many for it to be illicit beer or an oversize fire. A crowd forms, word spreads: A teenage boy's been swept out, he's missing in the water. We shiver, look. The surf is murky, all current and irregular chop. He was with his family. Someone points to a Latino man and two boys, maybe 12 and 14. They were up to their waists. They were trying to get back in. Waves hit them, and he went down. I hear he can't swim.
Five or six lifeguards hurry into the water. They form a line, dive in formation, come up again. Nothing. The father, in blue trunks, wrapped in a towel, watches, beating his thighs with his fists and tearing at his hair. Another dive. Nothing. The crowd is quiet. Some people seem on the verge of tears. A group of 30 gathers into a circle. Holding hands, they start to pray.
Another dive. Nothing. Two lifeguard boats arrive, each with a diver. Still nothing, and for someone who can't swim it's going on way too long. I'm holding on to my 9-year-old daughter and her best friend, and I can't stop looking at the father. The sun is down now -- will the search be called off? Will he have to spend the night knowing his boy is still out there, in the cold water, in the dark? Paramedics, then police, pull into the parking lot. The boy's brothers are running back and forth, one clutching a cell phone. Two rescue choppers arrive, sweeping low, shining their searchlights on the waves. The ocean looks too vast and black for anyone to spot one kid.
Suddenly everyone starts running south. Incredibly, the lifeguards have found the boy -- only 30 yards from where he vanished, floating beneath the surface in just four feet of water. They carry him to a truck, which crosses the sand to the waiting ambulance. I can see his legs hanging over the edge of the truck bed, limp. The ambulance takes off for Robert F. Kennedy Medical Center in Hawthorne, where at 8:50 p.m., Ricardo Daniel Esteves, who was 17 and from Lawndale, will officially be pronounced dead. He was right there, witnesses will tell the lifeguards. He was there, then he was gone.
The choppers and boats take off. The lifeguards pack away their gear, calling out as they divvy up flashlights. The crowd drifts away, and soon the fires are roaring again, and there's the sound of laughter and techno's hypnotic beat. Someone sets off fireworks, which fill the sky with silver and blue. In our group, the kids are burying each other in the sand, what they've just seen forgotten. I grab my daughter for the few seconds she'll tolerate. "Love the ocean," my husband and I tell her fiercely, "but never, ever let down your guard."
Here on the beach, the party goes on, but somewhere inland Ricardo Esteves' father must be weeping in pain and recrimination, his life changed in a way I don't even want to imagine. It had been a hot day, and such a beautiful night. It must have seemed the perfect time to take his family for a quick dip in the sea.
Journeys: Cross-Country Training
LAST WEEK I RODE AMTRAK'S SUNSET Limited line -- the greatest money-losing route per passenger in the nation (hemorrhaging $340 per rider, says the Kansas City Star). My journey had the added drama of a threat from Amtrak's feisty new president, David Gunn, to stop the trains in their tracks -- perhaps that very week -- if the government didn't cough up $200 million in operating funds. The threat was somewhat overstated given how the train stopped in its tracks anyway -- several times over the two-and-a-half-day journey, waiting at sidings until freight trains passed in the opposite direction. This is because Union Pacific, not Amtrak, owns the tracks. Stopped outside El Paso for 90 minutes, I called my sister to tell her we were now running five and a half hours late and still had to cross the entire state of Texas.
In the lounge car, everyone was talking about the potential shutdown.
"Oh yeah, they've been threatening that for 20 years," said George, who could be Nostradamus posing as the snack-bar attendant. "They keep giving us just enough to keep us dragging on for another couple of months." Four days later, just as George predicted, the government would announce a $170 million "final" bailout package to keep the trains on track through the summer.