When the ground moved early Friday morning, Art Lerille and his fiancee, Julie Nickoley, were standing near the bottom of the grandstand at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, watching the horses work out.
It was a typical morning for the couple, who met more than a year ago and quickly fell in love. Lerille, 56, has served as a horse trainer at the venerable San Gabriel Valley racetrack for 15 years. Nickoley, 34, rose before dawn each morning to accompany him to work.
"She loved him, that's why she went with him to the track every day," recalled Lerille's tearful sister, Linda Cano of Laguna Niguel. "And she was getting to love the horses too."
The San Dimas couple were standing on a set of stairs in an area known as "Clocker's Corner" when the temblor struck, and they began running toward the track to escape any falling debris from the overhanging grandstand roof.
They never saw what hit them.
Track officials said later that Lerille and Nickoley were felled by a 20-foot-long, L-shaped piece of steel that crashed from the ceiling of the structure.
Nickoley, who suffered massive head wounds, was pronounced dead on arrival at Methodist Hospital, directly across the street from the racetrack. Lerille, whose arm was broken and whose head was gashed, was hospitalized in fair condition.
Hours later, Lerille, surrounded by family members as he lay in his hospital bed, emotionally described the deadly incident.
"I had a filly on the track, and then it started and I told Julie we've got to go straight down," he said. "I didn't know what hit us or what happened. I just blacked out."
Arcadia Police Sgt. Bob McPherson called it a one-in-a-million quirk.
"It appears that the two folks in the grandstands were the only ones there," he said. "And the beam that fell was the only one that fell in this whole huge grandstand.
"They were there and it just happened to hit them."
Trainer David Cross, whose horses have included 1983 Kentucky Derby winner Sunny's Halo, had been chatting with the couple just moments before the tragedy. Lerille, Cross said, was watching his horse intently and complained that the jockey was riding too close to the rail.
Just after Cross moved closer to the track, the temblor hit. Cross said he noticed "a loose horse coming down the lane, and then I looked back and saw two bodies. I saw Art sitting up, with a big gash on his head and in pain at the shoulder. The blood was a dirty red color all around them."
Nickoley, he said, "probably died immediately. She probably didn't know what hit her."
Track officials describe Lerille as a steady, personable trainer, who has handled few stakes horses but is widely known around the close-knit track. Lerille's best-known steed has been My Habitony, a 1983 Kentucky Derby candidate that failed to make it to Louisville after finishing second to Marfa in the Santa Anita Derby.
My Habitony earned a total of $652,830, winning the Silver Screen Handicap in 1983 and the Bel-Air Handicap in 1985.
Nickoley had worked as a hostess at The English Butler, an Arcadia restaurant owned by a jockey, until it closed several months ago. A friend who worked at the stables, Lupe Rodriguez, said Nickoley was raised in San Jose and went to college in Northern California.
Friends and relatives said the couple were virtually inseparable since they met through mutual friends. They arrived at the track each morning about 5, said Francois Mathet, a trainer in a stall near Lerille's.
"He was always there every morning and his girlfriend was always with him," Mathet said. "We have our own world here. It's a very early job and it takes a lot of time."
Lerille's sister, Cano, said the couple were "planning to get married and were going back and forth about a wedding date. He loved his job and he loved his girlfriend too," she said. "She was a really nice, vivacious, full-of-energy person."
Santa Anita spokesman Richard Eng, who said the track suffered only cosmetic damage in the 1987 Whittier earthquake, called the death "just an unfortunate situation."
Track officials said the quarter-mile-long grandstand, which opened in 1934, has never been retrofitted for seismic safety but meets all code requirements for older structures. The steel angle iron that cascaded from the grandstand ceiling, Eng said, was not needed for the integrity of the building.
The earthquake struck during the middle of the morning workout, when dozens of horses were on the track and infield.
Santa Anita spokesman Rick Simon said early investigation showed cracked tiles and separated seams between sections of the grandstand. Such damage, he said, appeared "repairable" and "cosmetic."
He said he expected the track and infield to be open this morning for workouts for the 1,800 horses quartered in stables there during the off-season.
The next racing season at Santa Anita is scheduled to begin Oct. 2. The park is slated to open for satellite racing from Del Mar in late July.
Nickoley's death was the third non-racing fatality connected with local tracks in the last year. Last November, a fan was killed by gunfire on a stairway at Santa Anita. Last month, a bettor who had won about $88,000 at Hollywood Park was fatally shot at a hotel near Los Angeles International Airport shortly after leaving the track.