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At Least 15 Die in Collapsed Apartments

January 18, 1994|Ann W. O'Neill and Henry Chu | Times Staff Writers

At the place the huge temblortook its greatest toll, the woman stood vigil by an oak tree, peering into the rubble of what had been her home.

For four hours, Hyun Sook Lee stood by the Northridge Meadows apartments, where as many as 40 first-floor apartments collapsed under the weight of the two floors above, killing at least 15 people early Monday morning when the earthquake hit. What had once been a courtyard with waterfalls and streams was now sandwiched into a subterranean void less than a foot high. Cars parked in an underground garage were flattened. Stairways and a catwalk collapsed.

Lee, a nurse, stood and looked for some sign that her husband and 14-year-old son would somehow emerge, that the searchers would find them under that mountain of debris.

She had managed to crawl out of her first-floor apartment. So had her other son, Jason, though his leg had been broken as the apartment collapsed. But her husband, Phil Soom, 47, and her son Howard--home on a visit from boarding school--had not made it out in the minutes after the earthquake.

At 8:30 a.m., paramedic Dave Thompson approached Lee.

"Ma'am, listen to me. Your son, how old is your son?" he asked. "This son is dead, ma'am. He is dead."

Lee dissolved into tears, her shoulders racked by sobs. An hour later, Thompson again brought the worst of news. He told her that her husband was also dead, that there was no way he could have survived.

All of those who died in the apartment complex at 9565 Reseda Blvd. lived on the first floor, which was destroyed in a matter of seconds. In the hours immediately after the earthquake, it became clear that this 160-unit structure would become a focal point of the tragedy that stretched throughout Los Angeles.

Residents who survived would tell of the panic, the screams and the small acts of heroism in the minutes after the quake. And they would also tell of seeing in the debris the bodies of victims who could no longer be helped.

One of those survivors was Kym Cohen, whose apartment was on the third floor. She said the earthquake gave a huge jolt and then everything began to shake violently. The temblor was twisting the building, plunging upper story apartments downward. Cohen's whole apartment began to plummet, like some horrible ride.

"We could not get out of bed, the apartment was on a slant," she said. "We could not get out because the doors were jammed."

Panic set in as they searched for a way to escape what in seconds had become a prison. Cohen said her boyfriend finally freed them by prying open the door with a crowbar. But when they got out of their apartment, they heard the chilling sounds of agony and desperation and then, worst of all, silence.

"All we could hear were people yelling, 'Help me, please, help me! I can't get out!' " she said. "I heard a lot of screaming and crying when it first happened. Then a lot of silence. The silence scared me more than anything."

Bryan Watson, 30, clad only in pants and a jacket he had grabbed on the way out of his third-floor apartment, also pried open his door with a crowbar. "We walked uphill to the hallway after it collapsed," he said.

"It felt like Godzilla had picked our building up, shook it, couldn't find a toy and threw it back down on the ground," said Watson, a computer consultant who has lived in the complex for a year.

In another apartment, Eric Pearson, an emergency medical technician, escaped from his apartment and began throwing emergency fire hoses to people who could not make their way from the top of the wrecked building. But even those who found safety in the courtyard remained panicky as the initial jolt gave way to powerful aftershocks.

Trapped in darkness, some residents became hysterical until passing Los Angeles police officers pried open one of he gates. Pearson, meanwhile, kept working.

"I lost one person," Pearson said. "There was a little old lady in the back. Two beams fell on her. I told her to hold on, I'd be right back with a ladder. By the time I got back, she'd passed away."

As darkness turned to the first light of dawn Monday, it became clear just what had happened in the night. In the temblor, the building had lurched the six feet to one side and collapsed the first floor.

"You make a house of cards, you push it, it tilts. That's what happened here," said Bob DeFeo, a battalion chief for the Los Angeles City Fire Department.

The search for survivors began in earnest as the sun came up.

Rescue workers ripped apart apartment interiors, chopped through floors with axes and tossed out concrete chunks, mattresses, furniture, clothing and personal mementos in a desperate search for the living. Letters, canceled checks, photographs, a bloodstained mattress, a videotape of "Dumbo" littered the sidewalk and lawn.

As the day went on, firefighters brought in dogs and highly sensitive microphones as part of their rescue efforts, hoping to pick up the scent or sound of people under the rubble.

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