Laura and Steve Lin sat on a low brick wall Wednesday, solemnly watching demolition workers and firefighters hand their neighbors some salvaged possessions, hoping that someone would go into their apartment and retrieve whatever was worth saving.
The eight-unit apartment building in Hawthorne where the Lins lived until Tuesday looked as if it might collapse further. Already, much of the second floor had fallen into the first, the roof sagged deeply and two of the walls were practically gone--the effects of a natural gas explosion and fire that resulted from what investigators say was a resident's suicide attempt.
What the Lins wanted most was Steve's passport, immigration papers, identification, eyeglasses and car keys. Laura, who moved from Taiwan 1 1/2 years ago with her husband, had grabbed her purse containing her documents before fleeing the building Tuesday.
But the Lins' apartment was too unstable to enter, and about 1 p.m., after six hours of waiting, the couple was told to come back again this morning. Demolition crews will try to strengthen the building enough so someone can go inside their unit.
Despite the ordeal, the Lins and their neighbors said they were lucky to escape alive and virtually unscathed.
"Everyone's shaken up, but more than that, you're just very relieved," said Brad Mulder, 25, a resident of the building.
The only resident seriously injured in the blast was Bruce Wiedensohler, 31. Fire officials say they believe he tried to commit suicide by disconnecting the gas valve to his stove. He was in critical condition in Torrance Memorial Hospital's Burn Center with burns over 40% of his body. The investigation is continuing and no charges have been filed.
"With that type of explosion, we're surprised no one was killed," said Fire Capt. John Demonaco. "For just that one guy to be injured is remarkable."
Mulder was especially fortunate. He left half an hour early for work Tuesday--20 minutes before the explosion in the unit next to his. Fire officials speculated that Mulder might have been killed had he been home.
Mulder, an engineer at TRW, was in a jovial mood Wednesday as he and two friends waited outside the building to haul away the remainder of his belongings. However, he said, "I get upset when I get near my stuff."
Mulder put his belongings in storage and is staying with friends until he can find another apartment.
His neighbor, Jafar Najafi, 38, does not want to move his family into another apartment. "We are looking for something, but not like that," he said, nodding toward the apartment building. "Maybe a house because if it burns, I burn it. (I will) not live this close. It's too dangerous."
After the victims find another place to live, the Red Cross will pay their first and, if necessary, last month's rent, up to the amount they paid for their apartments at 4386 West 138th St., which rented for $460 and $600, according to a Red Cross volunteer.
Most residents of the apartment and those of the adjacent 12-unit building--which was vacated until structural damage can be repaired--stayed with family or friends Tuesday night. Eight people spent Tuesday night at the Hawthorne Memorial Center, which is serving as the Red Cross's shelter through today. Some residents were spending Wednesday night at motels paid for by the Red Cross.
The Red Cross also is helping residents, many of whom are not citizens, get passports, visas and immigration documents replaced and is providing food and vouchers to buy clothes and furniture. The victims and city officials could not find enough good things to say about the Red Cross.
And Red Cross officials could not find enough compliments for Hawthorne residents and city officials who came together quickly to help the victims.
Several people dropped off clothes and toys at the shelter, and senior citizens and Northrop Corp. provided lunches for the victims and rescue workers. The Hawthorne Firemen's Assn. donated $500 to help the victims, according to union President Harold Hofmeister.
"With the Red Cross or anybody else in the nation, I've never seen a city that has bent over backward to help their own," said a seven-year Red Cross volunteer, Anne Frederic. "If I ever get to the point where I'm in a disaster, I hope I am in Hawthorne."