As the realization that a body discovered caught amid trash, mud and other debris on an island of the Los Angeles River near Los Feliz Boulevard was that of missing teenager Elias Rodriguez, friends, onlookers and residents made their way to the bridge over the Pacoima Wash.
Located along Glenoaks Boulevard right next to the San Fernando Swap Meet, the wash — where it’s believed the 14-year-old was trapped in the raging current swollen by heavy rain on Feb. 17 — became the gathering site for a community saddened by his demise.
Day and night, people showed up to bring flowers, balloons, messages and candles, forming a growing memorial that reflects the enormous impact of his death.
On Monday, Feb. 27, a few people were at the site.
One after another, with solemnity and respect — mostly in silence — they came bearing something to add to the makeshift memorial. The warmth of the dozens of lit candles was comforting against the bitter cold. They also lit the night, rivaling the lights of passing cars, whose rumbling shook the ground.
Candles were lit, prayers were said, and people looked down at the incessant rush of the passing water under the bridge, still a strong current even on a dry day. One could only imagine the force of the water on that fateful day when Elias disappeared when it rained buckets, winds pounded the area, and the street was flooded by the storm that wreaked havoc on Los Angeles.
Janelle Moran, a student at nearby Vaughn MIT — a middle school located just a few blocks from the site — came with her cousin, Jenny Moran.
“It’s just so sad,” Janelle said of Elias’ death.
“It was really tragic,” Jenny added.
For days their family like countless others had wondered what happened to Elias, and on the morning of Feb. 24 they joined scores of other people, who gathered at Cesar Chavez Academies to volunteer for the community search. They were organized in groups of ten, posting flyers throughout San Fernando and surrounding areas.
The mood was optimistic and determined that they would find the teen. People were “amazed” that so many people came out to help, some picked up large batches of flyers to widen the net and were urging people to post flyers throughout Southern California and beyond.
“We all felt great that so many people stopped, we had never seen anything like this before, some drove by just to offer mall donations to help us print more flyers. One passerby formed the heart sign with her hands as she saw us putting flyers up.”
But their mood changed by mid afternoon when the news spread that a body had been found in the L.A. river in Los Feliz.
Many of those who volunteered returned, but now they were paying their respects at the Pacoima wash.
Sofia Luna and her daughter Nicole Almonte, 13 were among them.
“It’s all very sad,” said Luna, before breaking down a little. “As a mother, it’s the worst nightmare. You just wonder what was he thinking?, and how scared he was. ”
Luna says Elias’ passing has given them a new perspective on the power of water, and its dangers.
“I told her never to go near the wash,” said the mom, referring to conversations she’s had with her daughter, who attends San Fernando Middle School. On Feb. 17, the day Elias went missing, the adolescent was waiting in the rain for nearly a half hour before her grandparent went to pick her up.
“I stayed on the phone with her until they picked her up. I can only imagine what he (Elias) was thinking that day,” Luna said.
Nicole is friends with one of Elias’ cousins, and said she feels sad for both.
“I felt really bad for him (Elias’ cousin) because he lost someone he loved,” the teenager said.
Entire families now feel pulled to the spot that overlooks the wash.
“It’s devastating. It’s sad. It’s heartbreaking,” said Veronica Huezo, trying to find the words to show the impact the news has had on her.
“I can’t imagine losing one of my children,” added Huezo, who was joined by her husband and teenage son. “I just pray for his mother. I hope nothing like this ever happens again.”
Looking at the swift moving water below, flanked by rocky walls that form the canal, Huezo thought about the power of the current.
“Even if it was an adult, we can’t get out of it. On that day the water was just going so fast,” she said.
For years California has gone through a drought where we all begged for any measureable rain. This year we’re getting it, and it has given new life to gardens, yards and fields.
Water can give life. But, tragically in this case, it was deadly.