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For Quake Survivors, Life Is Still a Miracle

February 27, 1986|GARY LIBMAN

After working three years to learn hair styling, Julio Milano is virtually starting over. Holding his scissors with his thumb and ring finger, Milano, 25, tried his skill on a recent day, gingerly snipping away at his wife's hair.

Milano lost the lower part of his right thumb and forefinger in the Mexican earthquake last September. He hopes to resume work soon, but he wasn't ready to snip behind her ear for fear he'd cut her.

Diminutive, brown-haired Maria Milano, 22, faces her own challenges these days, such as climbing the stairs of their two-story Reseda condominium to reach their year-old son, Julian.

She also trains for clerical work at the clothing factory where she sewed for four years on a foot-pedaled machine. Maria Milano wears a prosthesis because she lost her left leg half way up the calf in the earthquake.

But sometimes that doesn't seem to matter.

"We are a miracle," she said recently, sitting beside her husband on a living room couch. "We are so perfect. It's just like nothing happened. Now that I have my leg back, I mean my prosthesis, I can do almost everything that I used to."

At the same time, the couple can't forget being trapped for seven hours on a hotel stairway last Sept. 19 and 20 while a massive temblor killed as many as 8,000 people.

"I'm very scared," Maria said, wrapping her arms around a pillow. "You know what I'm afraid of? . . . I take my leg off and if an earthquake came, I don't have time to put on my leg and I'm not able to pick up my baby and run away."

"Anytime I go to a place, anyplace, I always check, where is the emergency exit," she said, brushing at a tear. "I'm always close to the emergency exit."

Julio Milano, a 1978 Simi Valley High School graduate who remembers the devastating early-morning Sylmar earthquake of 1971, said he wakes up cheerful but goes to sleep afraid.

"Because I see how everything's so peaceful," he said. "And how tomorrow it can change."

An Innocent Beginning

Those fears resulted from what started as a two-week Mexico City vacation. Julio Milano figured he'd earned the trip after working rigorously to secure his own salon. His wife, who migrated to California from Guadalajara at 13, planned to do some work at the U.S. consulate for her citizenship papers.

The couple arrived in Mexico City on Sept. 18 and saw the Monumento de la Revolucion and major buildings, but never reached the consulate.

As they slept in the Hotel De Carlo on the morning of Sept. 19, the rocking movement awakened them.

Julio Milano felt confused, he recalled. As he put on his pants, he first thought he was at home. Then he realized he was on the fifth floor of a hotel and placed Maria's head under his arm to protect her. As he headed for the door, the room's windows exploded inward. The trembling room knocked him in several directions, but he reached the door and entered the hallway.

"I'll never forget the looks of the other people," he said. "There must have been 10-15 couples. The guys started scratching the walls. One of them ran out to a stairway around an elevator outside, and we followed him.

"That's when it really started to happen. You were moving sideways when you went down the steps. People behind us started screaming more and more.

"And when I turned to my left the wall was white and from one corner to another it looked like somebody wrote a chalk (mark).

'Wall Wasn't There'

"And I turned around to my wife. . . . And I turned back around and the wall wasn't there. That's when I could see buildings falling."

As the the fifth and sixth floors of the hotel collapsed, debris pinned the Milanos on a segment of the stairway that surrounded the elevator. She sat, her legs covered with rubble, and he squatted, his right arm also trapped. Meanwhile, the seventh through 12th floors of the hotel tilted and hung from the building like a tree branch.

When no rescuers appeared, Milano tried drastic steps.

"The decisions we took were pretty hard," he said. "There were times I was trying to tear my arm off. I tried to tear her legs off so I could take her out. . . ."

As he pulled, the Argentine-born husband wondered why he was dying.

"I came to the United States, and I pray to Jesus and I didn't do drugs and I didn't drive too fast. And here I'm going," he said sadly. "I mean, there was no war. Who was my enemy?"

Eventually, a Mexican Red Cross worker climbed elevator shaft cables and tied a rope around Julio and another around Maria. Other workers dug them free with equipment and their hands and lowered them to the ground.

Confused by Names

Ambulances took them to separate hospitals where doctors, confused by the death of a man with a similar name, told Maria her husband had died.

Twenty-four hours later the Red Cross worker who had rescued them told Maria that her husband's hand was crushed, but that he was alive.

"It was like the happiest thing that I ever have," said Maria, who graduated from Royal High School in Simi Valley in 1980 as Maria Sanchez.

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