The Heart of Avalon

on January 14, 2015

The Casino lights in a blue hue in honor of the loss of Tim Mitchell who was an Avalon Harbor Department Patrolman and Avalon Fire Department Reserve. Photo courtesy of Shana Cassidy.

Over the past two weeks, we have had many guests ask questions about what happened on the evening of Tuesday, December 30th.  Here is the way I saw it:

For those of you reading this blog for the first time, allow me to introduce myself:  I’m Lisa.  I just turned 34 on Sunday.  I grew up on Catalina Island – we moved here from Simi Valley when I was four.  I have been through some fairly good sized storms in my 30 years in Avalon.  The biggest storm I recall was in the winter of 1988.  It damaged roadways, walkways and buildings along the shore, including the Mole (boat landing) and the old Jiffy Wash building (a laundromat and surrounding businesses were literally crushed by the sea) and the force of the wind was enough to lift my younger sister off her feet.  There were some small personal watercraft and larger sailboats that sustained damage and even sunk, but that was nothing compared to what occurred on Tuesday night.

If you’ve been to Avalon before, you know that it is a generally well-protected little community.  We are surrounded by hills on three sides and escape most winds that ravage the mainland and the backside of the island.  What you might not know is the power of a Santa Ana or Nor’easter in Avalon.  Growing up I recall this was the one type of storm that scared me – the wind coming in that direction faces straight into the mouth of the harbor.  There is no blocking it – you just have to buckle down and hold on tight.  My uncle and several family friends were longtime harbor department employees, my mom worked for the Catalina Express.  They would often talk about these large storms with an almost religious-like reverence – as though the ocean should not be mocked or tempted, for fear it would bring a nor’easter our way.  I’ve always respected the ocean, however on Tuesday, December 30th, Mother Nature’s brute strength and sheer force stunned, silenced and shocked me.

Tuesday Night

The wind made a sound I’ve never heard before, as if every faucet in town had been left on and amplified for all to hear.  The sustained wind clocked in at 42 knots (just under 50 mph) for most of the evening.  Wave height reached 10-12 feet just after 10pm in Avalon Harbor.  I live nearly two blocks from the beach.  I felt the percussion of the waves at home; the salt spray was evident on our front porch the following morning.  Curiosity got the better of me – I wanted to see the size of the waves.  It was nearly 11pm.  I bundled up, picked up my cousin and niece (the wind had kept them up so we decided to explore together, as we’ve done before in other storms) and drove down toward Front Street with the wind biting our faces.  Low tide was just 10 minutes before we went downtown, so I expected to see some fairly big waves crashing on the beach, but what greeted my eyes was surreal.  The crests of the waves were at the height of the planks on the green pier.  They were crashing up against and over the end of the 100-plus-year-old structure.  Waves were rolling in quick succession onto the beach, onto the rocks by the basketball and volleyball courts, onto the Mole.  City and Sheriffs had already closed the road out to Pebbly Beach and the road to the Mole was limited to foot traffic and emergency services.  Several dinghies were already up on the beach.  It was a little too scary for us.  We headed for the Casino side of town, which in a nor’easter, is normally the more protected, calmer side of the harbor.

Our timing couldn’t have been worse.  We pulled up to the entrance of the Metropole Marketplace in time to hear a large crash of water and see the King Neptune (a 65′ dive boat owned by ScubaLuv, a local dive shop) broadside, banging into the wall of Step Beach.  We drove down to sombrero fountain and turned around to stop in front of the skate shop.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but we had (thankfully) just missed seeing Tim Mitchell go into the water.  The crowd, which looked to be at least 60-80 strong (and could have been larger) let out a cry of shock and many started quickly backing off of the beach.  The smell of diesel fuel filled the air.  People shouted to clear the beach for fear the fuel tanks would break apart or explode from the repetitive thrashing.  Emergency crews made their way down to our side of town, sirens screaming and lights ablaze.  We made our way back home, shaken by what we had seen, not knowing what the rest of the night held in store for us.

“I have bad news for you.”

Lives Lost

The moment after I dropped off my family, I got a text from my cousin – “I have bad news for you.”  My mind went racing – Olympic-level worrying commenced.  Was it my uncle (former harbor patrol, current jack-of-all-trades Search and Rescue volunteer), my nino (Avalon Fire Department Captain), a friend or former classmate (there are several that work for the city, harbor dept., fire department and sheriff dept. plus many that own and operate boats in the harbor)?  The rumors flew that night, faster than the wind.  By the time the wind had calmed, we had lost two amazing men to the sea – Bruce Ryder & Tim Mitchell.

“Avalon is generally an amazing city and its citizens are pretty damn great, but in crisis, we are superheroes.”

In the Middle of the Night

The adrenaline was pumping.  Lights were on all over town.  No one could really sleep with everything that was happening.  I got a message from Erin (owner of the Catalina Coffee & Cookie Co. and Taste of Catalina Food Tours and my friend), just after midnight.  They were going down to open up the Cookie Co. to get coffee going for the first responders.  I joined them at the shop.  For the next eight hours a group of us delivered coffee, baked goods, hugs, sympathy and love to the people of Avalon.

I don’t post this to toot our own horn.  So many people on tour tell us they feel like they’ve visited with friends when they finish our tour.  You all get this feeling because that is the overall force and love of our community.  Avalon is generally an amazing city and its citizens are pretty damn great, but in crisis, we are superheroes.  I don’t know if it is because we are a small town, on an island, or just happen to be surrounded by amazing people, but we are lucky and blessed.  The list of businesses that opened that night to provide food, warmth and support for first responders includes Steve’s Steakhouse, Maggie’s Blue Rose, CC Gallagher, Ristorante Villa Portofino, Lloyd’s of Avalon, Santa Catalina Island Company and many others, plus individuals all over Avalon.

Around 4 a.m. Erin, Gene (Erin’s husband) and I took a break to head down to the front street and see if the waves had subsided.  They had not; the King Neptune was gone – broken to pieces in the bay.  The spray was so great, we were getting drenched standing on the sidewalk directly in front of Coney Island and CSC Boardshop (over 50 feet away from the ocean).  We checked in with first responders, many of whom had been in the same area for most of the night, keeping watch over the boats that had washed ashore, exposed to the cold, diesel filled wind and spray.  We returned to the shop and continued to get the shop ready to open, if only because the work was keeping our minds off the bad news and we knew the town would need us to be open that morning.

#CatalinaStrong

The sense of loss was palpable as you walked down Front Street.  This incident occurred on one of the busiest weeks of the year.  The very next night, the Casino was to play host to the Chamber of Commerce’ annual New Year’s Eve Ball.  On a day when our community was generally boisterous, loud and rowdy, it was sadly more common to see friends embrace each other in tears on the street.  The list of businesses and individuals that helped in the days after the incident grew to include Catalina Express, Lobster Trap, Seaport Bistro, Luau Larry’s, the Marlin Club, Vons, the M Restaurant and Zest Catering plus many others.  The Catalina Island Yacht Club and Tuna Club pulled together to give funds to the families of those who lost their loved ones.  City crews and Vessel Assist worked around the clock to clear streets and beaches of debris and marooned boats.  Memorial services and celebrations of life were held – attendance was in the hundreds for each.  People came from all over the world to honor these men that had lost their lives to the ocean they loved so much.

Just because tragedy occurs doesn’t mean the world stops.  We still have guests to welcome and entertain.  I have never been more proud of the people from my hometown.  When one faltered and felt they couldn’t go on, the rest picked them up and urged them to move forward.  It happened over and over during the past two weeks and will continue to happen over the years to come.  It’s one of the spectacular yet normal everyday things about Avalon – we’ve got each others back.  It’s something I’m thankful for every day.

 

The Morning After

Boats rest on Middle Beach on December 31, 2014. Photo courtesy of Lisa Lavelle.

The Aftermath

The physical damage caused the City of Avalon to declare a local state of emergency last week.  Several boats ended up on the beach, some were salvageable, others were not.  Dozens of small craft were beached, sunk or battered to pieces.  Sea walls at Step Beach and the Casino Dive Park were damaged.  Small camps and coves sustained damage to piers, boats and out buildings.  Other damages remain to be seen.

The loss of life was staggering.  Some days the void left by Tim & Bruce feels insurmountable.  Yet in the midst of all these challenges, life goes on.

Clean up happens.  Businesses re-open.  Visitors come off the boat every day ready to enjoy their Catalina experience.  We want you to know we are here for you.  We know we will never be quite the same again, however we hope that you will have the chance to experience the love from the people of this island.  It is unlike anything else in the world.

 

Additional Information

Visitors and locals have asked where they may send donations to help the families of those who lost their lives:

For Bruce Ryder:

Bruce Ryder Memorial Trust

C/O Marlin Club

PO Box 1554

Avalon, CA 90704

 

For Tim Mitchell:

Avalon Harbor Employees Association

PO Box 1085

Avalon, CA 90704

 

There are a number of articles written and videos posted that provide other perspectives of the events of Tuesday Night and its aftermath:

A boater’s perspective – Courtesy of Mission Bay Yacht Club

Avalon Complex 12/30/14 – Courtesy of Orange County Register

Storm Death in Catalina – Courtesy of Los Angeles Times

 

The last storm of 2014 courtesy of Justus Ramming:

 

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