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Tenants Outlast Heat; Power Finally Returns

September 15, 1988|MARTHA L. WILLMAN | Times Staff Writer

Residents of a Highland Park apartment building who endured 21 days without electricity during a searing heat wave say the experience kindled new friendships among strangers.

"An incident like this brings everyone together," said Milton Douglas, one of more than 20 residents who withstood sultry heat in their apartments. The temperatures reached 115 degrees in a newly completed 13-unit building at 5010 Echo St. "We knew that exploding wouldn't do us any good."

The power outage ended Saturday. But the bonds developed among neighbors will last far longer.

"We developed a lot of camaraderie," Douglas said. "Not to the point that anybody broke out and started singing, but good camaraderie."

Started With Fire

The residents' ordeal began Aug. 20 when a fire broke out at a construction project next door to their building. Flames spread to some of the apartments, gutting one unit and damaging six others. It took eight fire companies 36 minutes to extinguish the blaze, which caused more than $265,000 in damage, said Jim Wells, Fire Department spokesman.

Soon after the fire was out, residents said they were told by fire officials that they could return to the undamaged units. But all utilities to the building--gas, water, power and telephones--had been turned off.

Joseph Tong, owner of the apartment building, said he advised tenants to find temporary housing elsewhere and told them that their costs would be reimbursed by insurance companies.

But many residents said they feared that vacated units would be vandalized. "I know they were not supposed to be there," Tong said. "But they wanted to look after their own belongings."

Douglas said most tenants could not afford to pay for temporary lodging elsewhere. "Where were we going to go?" he asked.

All the tenants had just moved into the building, which was completed in June, and they were strangers before the fire.

For three days after the fire, tenants cooperated with one another by periodically obtaining water by turning on a water main and filling buckets. They ran an electrical cord from a neighbor's outdoor plug to keep one refrigerator going and set up a barbecue on a balcony for cooking community meals.

Headquarters was set up in an apartment occupied by Douglas and two roommates since it has the most windows and best ventilation. Even so, residents said temperatures were stifling and several children required medical treatment for heat rash.

"It felt like it was 200 degrees in the building," said Maria Duran, who had moved to the building with her two children and a 21-year-old sister the day of the fire. "We bought only enough food that we needed each day. Otherwise, we had ants from the heat."

Duran's sister, Barbara Lopez, had to rise at 5 a.m. each day to drive to her mother's home in East Los Angeles to shower and dress in order to get to work by 8:30 a.m. in Beverly Hills, where she is a receptionist.

Residents said they were most concerned about one of the tenants, Celeste Shaffer, who was expecting her fourth child at any moment. Shaffer sent her three children to the homes of relatives but remained at the apartment building to await the birth of her child, staying with other tenants. When she went into labor at 5 a.m. Aug. 23, she patiently waited until daylight so that neighbors could safely guide her down the unlit steps of the building for the trip to the hospital. She gave birth to a daughter.

Remained Optimistic

Residents said they were optimistic when water, gas and telephone service was restored three days after the fire. They were hopeful that the power would also come on soon.

"We kept thinking, maybe today, maybe tomorrow, we would have power again," Duran said. She said she and other tenants did not complain about their plight to officials because they believed that the electricity would soon be restored and because they feared that they could be evicted.

Douglas said residents formed teams to barbecue hamburgers and hot dogs, do the marketing, and share candles and flashlights. An ice chest was used to supplement the one working refrigerator.

Occasionally, they plugged in laundry machines and a hair dryer and, for entertainment, briefly hooked up a television "so that we wouldn't go stir-crazy," Douglas said.

City officials said they were unaware of the plight of residents until last week, after tenants endured record high temperatures over the Labor Day weekend. A friend of one resident then sought assistance from Councilwoman Gloria Molina.

Speeding the Process

"They should never have waited so long to call," said Rose Marie Lopez, a Molina deputy. Lopez said she contacted the owner, insurance adjusters and various city departments to speed repair work at the building and restore power.

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