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'I think I've come a long way. Now I finally sleep. . . . But I'm beginning to think more of the past and reminisce, but not try to replace.'

February 16, 1988|PENELOPE McMILLAN

Don Carlos Drive was a quiet street in the middle-class black community of Baldwin Hills when an arson fire swept up a hill from La Brea Avenue on July 2, 1985, and left it looking like a surrealist painting--a series of blackened chimneys gaping at the sky.

Don Carlos was the street hit hardest, the site of nearly half of the 48 homes that were destroyed on that balmy summer afternoon in a fire that killed three people.

Two and a half years later, almost all the homes lost on Don Carlos and six other streets in the hillside community 10 minutes west of downtown Los Angeles have been rebuilt. The task took longer than they thought, many of the residents said, because of delays caused by problems with insurance, design or construction.

At least seven families moved away and chose not to return.

"It looks completely different," Rose Epherson said of Don Carlos Drive now. "I kept my same floor plan," but most other people did not. Instead of the one-story houses that were the standard since the 1960s, the new homes are much larger and two stories are now the norm.

"They're huge!" Epherson, a retired teacher, said of her neighbors' new homes. "I guess people have to do what they want to do. Personally, I don't feel the street accommodates large houses."

For some, the new houses were, as Abbie Lou Word said, exactly what he and his wife had always wanted. Word, 84, is blind and was rescued from the

fire and led to safety by two schoolchildren.

The couple were the first of the fire victims to move back onto Don Carlos, in mid-1986. Word claims that their two-story house with a porch off the second-floor rooms is "more convenient, and when people come by I have plenty of room."

The arsonist who started the fire on a weed-filled hill owned by Pepperdine University has never been caught, and the Los Angeles City Fire Department said the case is still under investigation.

About 90 lawsuits have been filed against Pepperdine, which has since sold the property, by various victims of the fire, according to James Davis, attorney for about 65 victims. Pepperdine has filed cross-complaints against homeowners. Each side claims that the other was negligent in not keeping their land cleared, Davis said.

All the cases have been consolidated under one Superior Court judge, Maurice R. Hogan Jr., Davis added, noting that when all the parties appear in court, there are so many attorneys "it looks like a legal convention." No trial date has been set.

Settling back in has taken some adjustment. Epherson, who moved back in 11 months ago, said, "At first I was really fearful" of another fire, but now, she added:

"I think I've come a long way. Now I finally sleep. I still try to buy things that were similar to what I wore before. But I'm beginning to think more of the past and reminisce, but not try to replace."

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