Student Struggles with Tragedy in So. Cal Wildfire
The Cedar Fire claims a student's great-uncle.
November 1, 2003 12:48 PM
As wildfires rage on through Southern California, San Francisco would seem to be relatively unscathed, with flight delays and worries, but little else impacting the Bay Area directly.
This is not the case for Michelle Griesgraber, a 21-year-old journalism student at SF State. On Sunday morning, after trying to reach her throughout the night, Griesgraber’s mother bore the news that her great-uncle Stephen Shaklett of La Mesa, a San Diego suburb, was one of 10 people to have been killed by the Cedar Fire, the largest of the blazes. The fire has destroyed more than 230,000 acres. Adding to the anxiety, the family is missing three people still, Griesgraber’s two aunts and an uncle.
“It’s like living a nightmare over the phone–-the missing relatives, the death, just being part of it,” Griesgraber says. “It’s surreal. It makes it worse because I can’t be there to live it with them.”
“He told her that he was sure Steve was just waiting down at the bottom of the hill for us,” Griesgraber says. “As they were driving by Bob told her to duck her head between her legs and she might feel better--what really happened was that he was going back and would pass the motor home in flames, and he didn’t want her to see. When they got to the bottom of the hill, he told her the truth.”
Griesgraber says that the family is holding together as well as can be expected, considering the tragic circumstances.
“They’re all bonding together, taking turns cooking, and everything,” she states. “Cheryl said, ‘I’m a strong woman, and I’ll get through this. You can take everything from me, but why did you take my man?’”
As she speaks, Griesgraber alternates between a wide smile and tears, memories flooding out of her.
“Every Christmas we’d all go over to their house. It was a huge place with panoramic windows, hardwood floors, and giant bearskin rugs. We’d walk in, and Steve would have five different kinds of meat carved, roast turkey, beef,” Griesgraber says, her eyes twinkling. “All the women would gather on the porch and drink, and all the guys would be inside playing poker.
The burden is perhaps extra difficult on Griesgraber, who is alone in the Bay Area. While her friends have been supportive, it has been all the harder without family here to comfort her.
“It’s strange,” she says, “but I’d rather be down there suffering with them than up here where they think I’m safe.”
Although the family has managed to recover Shaklett’s remains, plans for a funeral are on hold until the rest of the family has been located, and the situation has settled somewhat. From listening to Griesgraber describe him, it seems as though Shaklett was an imposing, yet sweet man.
“He was huge, six-foot-five, more than 300 pounds with strawberry-blond hair, blue eyes, and a short beard,” she recollects. “The Irish Wolfounds, they looked like regular dogs next to him, when they seriously looked like small ponies in front of anyone else. He was very opinionated, a staunch conservative who’d petition you into watching these right-wing conspiracy videos. He loved discussing politics and money, and was really intelligent. He’d open his house to anyone: liberal, feminist, vegetarian, you name it.”
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