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Aftermath in Whittier: Pain, Pathos and Anger

October 02, 1987|TRACY WOOD and JOHN HURST | Times Staff Writers

In all of his 76 years, Leo Wilkenson had never been so scared--to death, he thought as the earth began to shake at 7:42 a.m. Thursday. And for a moment, he welcomed it.

Disabled, infirm, he called home a room on the top floor of the six-story Hoover Hotel in downtown Whittier. Below, on the second floor, Wilkenson's friend, Maria Aguilera, 40, who does volunteer work for the elderly, knew right away what the shaking in the venerable hotel meant.

She ran up and into Wilkenson's kitchen. At that instant, the roof collapsed and fell squarely on top of her. Stucco rained into her hair and eyes. Walls cracked. Pipes burst.

Water poured out. But she managed to stay on her feet, turn and spot Wilkenson.

"Come down with me," she said.

Wilkenson caught his breath.

"I'd rather stay here," he said, "and die."

Then, the building shook again.

Aguilera ran downstairs and returned with help. Wilkenson was taken to nearby Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital, in shock but otherwise unhurt. He was one of 60 people treated at the hospital, which serves the community hardest hit by Thursday's earthquake.

The devastation in Whittier, near the epicenter of the 6.1 earthquake, was severe. Wilkenson was one of about 1,000 people who were evacuated from homes and businesses in the city. About 15 blocks of the central business district, called "Uptown," were blocked off. Bricks and shattered glass fell down all over town.

In a city which proudly had maintained 60- to 70-year-old stores and homes, it was the oldest buildings, such as the Hoover Hotel, now no longer inhabitable, which were particularly hard hit. Police officers moved in to prevent looting.

Three buildings collapsed. Eight to 10 others were shaken beyond repair. Police estimated that 50 businesses and at least 100 homes suffered extensive damage.

Red Cross officials said they were prepared to house 80 to 100 people, some of them occupants of those buildings, overnight.

Throughout the day, residents clustered on tree-shaded lawns, some forced from homes where crumbled foundations, cracked walls and toppled chimneys made going inside dangerous. Others said they just wanted to avoid being indoors in the event of an aftershock.

Residential damage was most acute just north of the central business district, where government officials quickly strung yellow tape across the yards of homes too unstable to be used and broken water mains left gutters of red mud along the quiet, tree-lined streets. There were also numerous reports of broken gas lines.

Cruelly, the earthquake halted much of the city's effort, ongoing since 1977, to refurbish Uptown, its original business district.

Flower beds had been built, trees planted and red concrete molded to look like brick sidewalks. Buildings in this area--along Greenleaf Avenue and Philadelphia Street--were the hardest hit. And now the face-lifting will have to wait.

Whittier celebrated its centennial on May 16. As part of the commemoration, a large town clock was installed outside City Hall on Painter Avenue. The clock was smashed by the temblor.

Thursday afternoon, the Whittier City Council met in emergency session and passed a proclamation declaring a state of emergency. The resolution asked the governor to declare a state emergency in the area to make area residents and merchants eligible for financial aid to pay for cleanup and inspections.

"There is no question some (buildings) are quite unsafe," City Manager Tom Mauk said, adding that the buildings had been previously inspected and found to be in compliance with city codes. "There are businessmen who are going to be out of business."

At the Hoover Hotel on Greenleaf, the city's main street, police went door to door to evacuate residents. Many of the occupants already had fled and had locked their doors behind them. Police said they had to kick in 30 doors and officers found four elderly people still inside their rooms.

They included one man who had gashes on his head and body. Detective Ron Carlisle said the man, who was not identified, "had so much blood on him" nobody could tell how badly he had been hurt.

Newlyweds Karola and Steven Brownfield, until two months ago part of Los Angeles' homeless community, thought they had a home at last when they moved into the Hoover Hotel.

But Thursday night, with just their personal papers and a change of clothes, the Brownfields were back on the streets, seeking overnight shelter at the Community Center.

Steven Brownfield described the move from homelessness to homelessness as "going from the frying pan into the fire."

Police officers escorted Margaret Obergaard, 82, out of the Hoover to the sidewalk. She clutched a red flashlight in one hand and a brown plastic bag in the other as she sat on a bench across the street. The bag held her important papers and pictures of her son when he was a little boy.

"You didn't think I'd leave without those, did you?" she asked.

She also worried that the mail would not be delivered and her rent payment would be late.

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