Officials at Ramona Convent School in Alhambra learned last week that when nature unexpectedly strikes a nasty blow, timing can mean the difference between life and death.
Had the 7:42 a.m. earthquake hit 15 minutes later last Thursday, the area around the heavily damaged administration building would have been filled with students.
By 8 a.m. most days, many of the school's 540 students are milling around the administration building, through which they must pass to get to their classes.
"Fifteen minutes later and we would have had people killed," history teacher Steve McCarthy said, pointing to a brick-littered walkway next to the building. The school, closed since the quake, is scheduled to reopen Monday.
Although many expressed relief that tragedy had been averted, school officials, students and alumni lamented the planned demolition of the 98-year-old landmark because of structural damage.
"It is sort of like losing an arm or a limb," said Sister Annunciata Bussman, the school's principal.
Even though the Catholic girls' school has been closed since last Thursday, a steady stream of visitors, including students, parents, alumni and nearby residents, has come by each day to see the building with its distinctive mission-style tower.
"I'm just getting a last look," said Fred Hermosillo, whose daughter attends the school. "It won't be long before it all comes down."
Mary Nelsen, who graduated from Ramona 53 years ago and whose granddaughter now attends the school, arrived with her husband. "This is sad," she said.
Nelsen talked with other alumni and students, including Teresa Garcia, a 15-year-old junior who will graduate in 1989, when Ramona celebrates its centennial.
"We were hoping (the administration building) would be here for our graduation," Garcia said.
Mamie Contreras, a parent, said that without it, the school "is going to be a flag without its stripes."
Once it became clear that the building must come down, administrators have had to handle a number of "aftershocks" unrelated to earth movement.
Teachers and other staff members have worked to salvage as many items as possible. Walls collapsed inside the three-story building, and bricks from the exterior have fallen to the ground.
The building housed offices, the kitchen, a bookstore, music rooms and a chapel that was no longer in use. Because of earlier concerns about its safety, classes were not taught in the building, and the top two floors were vacant. Many antiques were saved from the upper floors of the building, including what is called the Lincoln Desk because the 16th President signed legislation on it. All the school's records and many textbooks were also recovered.
Among the survivors were 9,000 candy bars that students plan to sell to raise money for the Girls Athletic Assn.
The candy had been stored in the basement, where falling debris and flooding from broken water pipes caused severe damage. But the candy, wrapped in plastic bags, was found floating and salvaged, said Deborah Drury, a physical education teacher.
Not faring so well was a year's supply of duplicating machine paper that the school had just bought on sale, said Sister Annunciata.
The school had originally proposed to tear down the building last summer because it did not meet seismic safety standards. Its walls are made of unreinforced brick covered with stucco.
But a campaign by alumni persuaded the Alhambra City Council to pass a temporary ordinance barring its demolition. The city repealed the ordinance after the earthquake, and school officials expect the building to be demolished within three weeks.
It will be replaced by a one-story mission-style building, which is expected to cost about $1.5 million, Sister Annunciata said.
Although the building's days are numbered, it will have one last starring role.
In August, the crew of the television series "Murder, She Wrote" spent six days filming in the building. The program, scheduled to air Sunday, will be the last chance most people will get to see the inside of the building.