A Boyle Heights apartment house that had been declared safe by city building inspectors after the Oct. 1 earthquake partially collapsed early Sunday, only minutes after two tenant families abandoned the creaking structure in fear.
"We were in bed and trying to go to sleep when we heard the creaking at about 11:30 Saturday night," said Ignacio Lopez, 65, a tenant at 2831 1/2 Michigan Ave. "Then we smelled gas. So I got up to warn the neighbors and we bumped into each other on the front porch, because they were coming to warn us. I shut off the gas main, and then the water and electricity, and then we just stayed outside."
Just past midnight, the house crashed onto part of its foundation, waking most of the closely knit neighborhood and sending throngs of people into the street.
"It was as loud as a car crash!" said Mario Casca, 8, who lives across the street.
The old wood frame house, which was divided into two small apartments connected to two other aging units in the rear, had been examined by a building inspector on Oct 2, Los Angeles police said.
The inspector declared both of the two-story rear units unsafe, but allowed the one-story front apartments to remain occupied, officers said.
The building was condemned by the city Sunday, after an emergency inspection, and tenants were not allowed to re-enter even to claim belongings, police said.
A house next door was declared unsafe by inspectors, because of fears the damaged structure might fall onto it.
A spokesman for the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety could not be reached Sunday for comment.
Lopez said his sister, with whom he had been living, and the family in the unit adjoining unit had moved out after the earthquake. The adjoining unit was reoccupied only a week ago by a third family that had been forced out of the rear unit after it was ordered evacuated. That family was said to have moved in with relatives after the collapse.
The landlady, Birdie Keith, 88, who lives in another old wooden structure at the rear of an adjoining lot, said she doesn't know what she will do with the old structures, which were given to her decades ago by an uncle and are her sole source of income. The buildings are believed to be at least 60 years old, and possibly much older, she said.
The neighborhood is made up largely of Mexican immigrants, many of them friends, relatives and in-laws. Those dislodged by the collapsing building, though offered shelter by the Red Cross, preferred to stay at the homes of friends and relatives nearby Sunday.
"The children are already so scared of earthquakes," said Jose Ponce, a 26-year-old factory worker who was displaced because he lives in the now-unsafe building next to the collapsed structure. "We would rather have them in a familiar place. Besides, we'd like to be near our belongings."
So Ponce and his wife and two children moved into a one-bedroom apartment across the street with his wife's sister, Rosa Ramirez, and her family of five until he can find a new apartment.
"A lot will be sleeping on the floor," Ramirez said. "But you just offer your home at times like this. We are godparents to each other's children. We have birthday parties together. We all know each other around here."