By Miguel A. Melendez Staff Writer
THERE’S a 12-second voice message on Jesse Hernandez’s cell phone. The call came from Arturo Beristain just before 10 p.m. about three months ago.
“I’m going to the mountains tomorrow. Early, not too early. Call me back … please … if you want to go … bye.”
Hernandez, a senior and starting center on the Pasadena High School football team, saves that message every few weeks. He’s heard it a dozen times, each time a flurry of emotions overwhelming him – anger, sadness, encouragement.
The emotions stem from a terrible Tuesday morning while hiking through a treacherous area in Eaton Canyon.
Hernandez, 17, and Beristain, 25, had known each other five months, but instantly struck up a friendship when they met at Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena.
They shared a lot of interests – from watching movies to playing the drums and congas to hiking. But most of all, they shared a passion for serving in the Christian ministry.
For a while, they talked about going hiking together.
Then Beristain called.
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“I was so excited, so I called him right back,” Hernandez recalls.
And off they went. Hanging out like they had done so many times, despite knowing each other only a short period of time. Among other things, they talked about the best way to serve God and serving time at church. They also were excited about attending a birthday party for Hernandez’s father, Efrain.
After enjoying the hilltop views and fresh air, Hernandez and Beristain headed down.
“I noticed we were going straight down instead of zigzagging like we were supposed to,” Hernandez said.
The dirt wasn’t stable. Rocks were rolling down. Beristain, about seven feet ahead of Hernandez, slipped and started sliding down … and sliding fast.
Hernandez grabbed onto a twig and called to his friend.
“Artu … ”
But Beristain was gone. He’d fallen about 200 feet to his death.
Hernandez remembers sprinting down the hill looking for his friend.
“But looking back, I don’t think I could have sprinted,” he said. “It was just too steep.”
But that’s what he remembers, sprinting to save his friend. Hernandez found him, hunched over a tree, his blue polo shirt soaked in blood.
Hernandez held Beristain in his arms, begged him to wake up.
Hernandez told Beristain he loved him, then checked his pulse.
“I didn’t feel his presence anymore,” Hernandez said. “I couldn’t believe it. I was denying the whole thing and I was screaming to God and asking why this was happening.”
Beristain’s head was split open, his brain exposed. Hernandez opened Beristain’s mouth, but it was filled with blood.
“It was disgusting,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez took off his bandana and covered Beristain’s head.
“I couldn’t take it anymore,” Hernandez said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
He ran for help and found two men. One had a cell phone and called 9-1-1 just after 10 a.m.
About 10:30 a.m., 22 firefighters and search-and-rescue personnel from the Pasadena Fire Department, Altadena Mountain Rescue Team, Glendale Fire Department, Los Angeles County Fire Department and U.S. Forest Service hiked in to extract the body.
Two hours later, they emerged from under a bridge on the Mount Wilson Toll Road carrying Beristain’s body on a stretcher.
Hernandez couldn’t believe that someone who had turned around his life was suddenly gone. Beristain had changed his life dramatically over the past two years – Hernandez was no longer the drug addict fleeing his problems in Minnesota.
“One thing I want you to understand is meeting this guy drastically changed my life,” Hernandez said. “Especially the day he died, because that’s when I realized you take people for granted, you take almost everything for granted.”
Hernandez has gone back to the mountains once. It was a week after the tragic accident, to take the Beristain family to the site. They had flown in from Mexico City to plant a cross where the son, brother, uncle and friend had died.
The following Sunday, Hernandez played the drums in front of the church congregation.
He broke down and wept.
Hernandez consequently took two weeks off from football, but soon realized he needed football more than ever.
The two-year letterman’s biggest challenge now is learning to channel the frustration and anger in a useful manner.
“After he died, I didn’t even want to crush a bug,” Hernandez said. “Death was such a sad thing. I was a peace freak.
“I would see people arguing and I would say, `Why are you arguing? You should be happy and loving each other.’ Then I would see people laughing and I would think they were taking life for granted.
“It was weird feelings that came over me. Then after a while I started feeling rage.”
Hernandez took it out on one of his best friends, Kevin Kevort. They were going through tackling drills when Hernandez started swinging at Kevort. They were separated and Hernandez started crying.
Hernandez no longer thinks about the ifs, ands or buts or what else he could have done to save his friend.
He spends a lot of time at Lake Avenue Church, staring at the crystal window depicting God holding a Bible and candle.
“It was the first thing (Beristain) said he saw when he rose above the water when he was baptized,” Hernandez recalls.
Hernandez finds it a little strange that he saved instead of deleted the voice message Beristain left nearly three months ago.
“I felt it … ” said Hernandez, pausing before continuing. “I felt it was special, so I kept it. Now I can hear him whenever I want.”