At first, the crew rappelling down a steep Long Beach bluff to do clean up work did not know if there was anything significant inside a weathered and mildewed cardboard box spotted on the slope.
There was. And its discovery two weeks ago would end nine months of anguish for a family, and enable a long delayed memorial service to proceed.
Gerson Lopes always appreciated the way his big sister Damadis Sanchez had helped him get through the tough times at school, even going toe to toe with would-be bullies.
"She was always there for me," Lopes said.
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They stayed close even after she moved with her two sons to Texas, trying to restart her life after losing her husband in a traffic crash.
For Lopes and his famly in El Monte, it was devastating to get the call last year that at age 34, she too had been killed in a traffic accident, along her 8-year-old Anthony. Ramon, then 13, was seriously injured, but survived and now lives with his grandmother. Lopes made the arrangements for the remains of Damadis and Anthony to be cremated in Houston, and brought back to California. Last April, the family prepared for a a memorial service, placing the two urns in the van they would be driving.
Then, another devastating setback: the van was stolen, and with it, the urns inside. Damadis and Anthony would not be present at their funeral services. The family would not be able to scatter their ashes at sea as they had planned.
"I was pretty depressed," Lopes said.
Nine months later, the van is still nowhere to be found. But on the Long Beach bluffs above the sand, the crew from the Los Cerritos Wetlands Stewards decided to take a closer look at that box that apparently had been tossed over a sidewalk guard rail and into the brush.
"We could see a plastic bag inside, and ashes, and we knew they were remains," said John McGaffin, a retired Glendale firefighter.
They also saw the label of a Houston mortuary, and the name Anthony Sanchez. Later, they found a second container of ashes with the label of the same mortuary, and the name, Damadis Sanchez.
"All of us were stunned," said Alex Martin, a diver who works with the Wetlands Stewards. "Who would do this?"
They called the phone number of the mortuary, and it put them in contact with Lopes. That same day he drove to Long Beach, thanked the crew, and took possession.
"Just like a weight off my shoulders," Lopes said, praising the crew for taking the initiative to look more closely, and follow up.
"That team, they're solid people," he said. "We had a moment, and hugged it out."
"Good for you guys," was the enthusiastic message of praise the crew got from their boss, Lenny Arkinstall, the founder of the Los Cerritos Wetlands Stewards.
Nine months ago, Lopes and his family had made arrangements with a boat operator to take them out to sea so they could scatter the ashes. With their return, Lopes did not delay. That very afternoon, he re-made the arrangements, and gave his sister and nephew the proper ceremony so long delayed.
"That's some closure and some comfort," said Prestyn McCord, who had recovered the first urn. "For all of us."