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Selling Off the Yard : Auction at Defunct Todd Ship Facility Attracts Former Employees as Well as Buyers


It is the biggest yard sale Los Angeles has seen since--well, probably since forever. Because this sale is a ship yard sale, at the sprawling Todd Shipyard in San Pedro.

Todd was once one of the biggest ship-building and repair facilities on the West Coast. But now it's out of business and everything must go. More than 100,000 items, from hammers to 90-foot cranes, will be sold to the highest bidders as an auction company tries to recoup what it can from a ghostly, rusted-out shipyard that not so long ago employed almost 6,000 people.

For some people the six-day public auction, which ends Saturday, is a chance to pick up a bargain. For others, it's like watching a piece of their lives being sold away.

"I had to come," said Donald Shields, 72, of Riverside, who worked at the shipyard for more than two decades after immigrating to California from Scotland. "It's going to be the last time I get to see my old shipyard. I tell you, it breaks my bloody heart."

"It's sad to see it," said Al Angulo, whose family has had three generations represented at the yard. Angulo's father and three uncles worked at Todd Shipyard during World War II, when almost a thousand ships were built or repaired there. Angulo started there in 1960; and Angulo's son worked at the yard for a year in the early 1980s.

Even after the shipyard closed in 1989, Angulo stayed on as part of a skeleton staff. But three weeks from now will be his last day on the job.

"I've been here 32 years, I'm 52 years old," Angulo said. "Where do I go, what do I do?"

Most of the people at the auction, however, weren't taking a walk down memory lane or worrying about the future. They were looking for equipment, cheap.

Luis Fukutake and Benjamin Velez of San Pedro, for example, were looking for a sandblaster.

"You can get bargains," Fukutake said, adding that he wanted a sandblaster to start up a weekend business. "But you really have to know what you're buying. Because once you buy it, there's no bringing it back."

"I'm looking for flags," said John Roberts of Wilmington. "There's a lot full of flags over there--signal flags, some Old Glories, all kinds of flags--that I hope I can get for a good price."

The shipyard dates back to 1917, when it was called the Los Angeles Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Corp. Bought by the Todd company in 1943, the shipyard once employed 15,000 people and turned out hundreds of Navy and commercial ships, from Liberty ships to tankers to the "submarines" at Disneyland. As recently as 1983, almost 6,000 people worked there building frigates for the Navy.

But the loss of Navy contracts, and subsidized foreign competition in commercial shipbuilding, forced the Seattle-based Todd company into bankruptcy in 1987; two years later the company closed the San Pedro shipyard. The shipyard's assets were taken over by the Port of Los Angeles in 1990.

There were attempts to revive the shipyard by selling it to other shipbuilding companies, but none of the proposals worked out. Last fall the port sold the shipyard assets to B&B Contractors of Seattle for $5.8 million.

The auction is being held by a Studio City-based company called Industrial Assets Inc., which has spent the past six months sorting out the assets of the shipyard, grouping them in various lots, putting number tags on them and stacking them in the decrepit warehouses and old machine shops that occupy the 112-acre shipyard on North Front Street.

Industrial Assets will receive 10% of the proceeds from the sale, which company officials hope will total about $25 million, although some veteran auction-goers say that may be overly optimistic. The rest of the proceeds will go to B&B Contractors.

Prospective buyers move from building to building, bidding on items as an auctioneer calls out his sing-song, rapid-fire auction patter: "Lot 10511, who's got a 50-dollar bill for this, 50, 50, who's got 50, 50, 50-dollar bill one time! We got 60, 60, 60, we got 60, 60, 60 we say! We got 70, 70, you're out, you're out, we got 70, 70, 70, 80, new money! Who's got 90, 90, 90, 90 . . . ?"

The auctioneer says all this in about one-hundredth of the time it takes to read it.

"If I did it any slower we'd be here all day long," said Marc Swirsky, 25, an Industrial Assets vice president who does some of the auctioneer work. "You gotta move fast in this business."

Auction company officials repeatedly said that "the public sets the minimum and the public sets the maximum" on what any particular item will sell for, meaning that there is theoretically no minimum. But they admitted that a 90-foot whirly crane worth in the neighborhood of, say, $100,000 will not be sold for a buck, even if there's only one bidder.

Industrial Assets officials estimate that 4,000 or more people will attend the auction over six days, including large-scale buyers from around the United States and the world. About 900 people registered to bid on items on Monday alone, according to Roy Gamityan, an Industrial Assets vice president.

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