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Living through 1980 Panorama fire

Living through 1980 Panorama fire

Dec. 4, 1980: Connie Eckstrom and her daughter Amy, 16 months, wait their turn at a disaster center at the California National Guard in San Bernardino. Eckstrom lost her home in the Panorama fire.

The Nov. 25, 1980, brush fire killed five and destroyed 280 homes in San Bernardino.  Connie and her husband Gordon and children Scott, 7, Eric, 6, Joey, 3, and Amy lost their home, but were not hurt. After the fire, they were staying at Connie’s mother’s home.

A Dec. 8, 1980, Los Angeles Times article reported on several families who lost their homes, including the Eckstroms:

Connie, 28, prides herself on her homemaking. She makes most of her children’s clothes, Now they needed new clothes badly. But her sewing machine was destroyed….

During the fire on North Park Boulevard, Gordon and Connie Eckstrom has lost track of their oldest boys. Their other youngsters Joey, 3, and Amy, 16 months, were in the Datsun.

But Scott, 7, and Eric, 6, were missing.

The Eckstroms had driven to North Park Elementary School. It was surrounded by fire. (Gordon) Eckstrom heard conflicting stories. All the children had been evacuated. No, some had been allowed to walk home.

Were Scott and Eric somewhere on foot? Back at the house?

Now Eckstrom wheeled the car around. He parked at the corner and told Connie to drive herself, Joey and Amy to safety if the fire got any closer. He struck out on foot. He tried to run, but the smoke was so heavy he choked. He slowed to a walk.

The boys were nowhere in sight.

At home, he found the family dog, a little black mutt named Vader. Eckstrom gave Vader to a young woman in tears who was walking toward the Datsun. He asked her to give the dog to his wife and to bring back the house keys.

The woman delivered the dog but didn’t return.

With the garden hose trained on his roof, Eckstrom watched as house after house on North Park ignited and burned, each in a matter of minutes. The wind, roaring like a river in full flood, lifted a fireball from a roof a block away and dropped it four doors down.

In seconds, that rooftop was ablaze; in minutes the house was engulfed. As the house collapsed, a new gust blew its walls outward–and lifted another fireball into the air. Eckstrom watched the fireball shoot across North Park. It fell on his side of the boulevard, three doors down.

That house burned.

“We’re in big trouble,” Eckstrom thought.

He pulled off his bedroom screen, forced open the window and dived through. He fell onto the bed, rolled off and grabbed his financial records and his insurance policies.

Then he bolted for the door.

Outside, policemen were ordering everyone to leave.

Where were Scott and Eric?

A forest ranger stopped. Eckstrom climbed into his car and they drove away.

Connie Eckstrom had long since gone. Fire had licked through the grass along North Park and up to the door of the Datsun. She drove away, stopped at Richardson Junior High School – and found Scott and Eric.

The two boys had been evacuated minutes before from North Park elementary, where drivers had pulled school buses up to the door. They had stretched a rope from the door to each bus. One by one, the students, blinded by the smoke, had clutched the rope, followed it out and boarded the buses.

Many of the youngsters cried. They could see the flames. But no one was hurt…..

Gordon and Connie Eckstrom probably won’t return. They have nothing against the neighborhood. It was pleasant enough. But they had been thinking about moving to Riverside anyway. It was closer to Gordon’s job…

Connie Eckstrom will remember forever how much she worried while Scott and Eric were missing. “You think about how you left them that day before they went to school. Did they get their kiss goodbye? Did you tell them you love them?”

Her husband has similar memories. “That gut fear I had when I thought my boys might be trapped in that school–that I might not see them again–outweighed anything else,” he recalled. “I was willing to barter anything.”

A different photo by staff photographer Ken Hively accompanied the above-quoted Dec. 8, 1980, Los Angeles Times story. The story – a long Column One piece – was written by staff writers Richard E. Meyer, Lorraine Bennett, Henry Mendoza and David Lesher.

While searching for Mother’s Day images, I found this photo in the Los Angeles Times Archives filed under “mother.” Then I found the above-quoted story.

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  1. June 11, 2013, 10:02 pm

    Thanks Scott for sharing this photo. It show the essence of my mother's love and concern for us. It's ironic how my sister-in-law just forwarded this article as I am currently thinking about what I might need to grab from my home as the Royal Gorge fire here in Colorado threatens to take my house should the winds change direction this very night. I often think back on that day 33 years ago and the most vivid memory is that of my brother and I covering our mouths with towels as we fumbled blindly along that rope towards the bus. As a parent with two boys of my own, I often reflect on the stress and fear my parents must have experienced trying to rally the family after the evacuation. My father worked so hard to defend that house. I have always admired him for trying and for the lesson that day taught me:
    Grab the boys and the wife, the rest can………..

  2. June 12, 2013, 1:54 am

    I remember this all too clearly. Some friends of my wife and I forwarded this piece to us. Losing your home to a fire can leave an indelible image on you for a lifetime.

    I remember there was a janitor at North Park Elementary; I don't recall his name. What I do recall was the calm manor in which he handed out damp towels to scared first graders and led them to safety through darkened corridors and out to awaiting buses. I wish I knew his name so I could thank him for his demeanor that day.

    Being a father myself, I can appreciate the rawness of fear MY father must have felt that day. He choked it down and did what he had to do, for the sake of his home and his family. That's a real man. I'm grateful for that memory.

    By: Eric Eckstrom
  3. November 22, 2013, 3:34 pm

    That same janitor at North Park Elementary is remembered vividly by my son who was a kindergarden student at that time. As the students ran across the school yard toward neighborhood cars that were being filled with the fleeing children, my son's shoe came off. He remembers how the janitor recovered his shoe and gave it to him. Any delay at that moment could have been a tragedy; I am so grateful that he was there to see my son to safety.


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