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Los Angeles Times Special Report : On the Fault Line : Southern Californians Take Stock of the Earthquake : Too Close to Home : Yes, quakes come with the territory, but this temblor was different

January 19, 1994|SCOTT HARRIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Linda Gordon, a math teacher at Bird Middle School, shrugged when asked about the odds of her survival.

"It happens or it doesn't," she said. "Fifty-fifty."

Anat Laskier couldn't help but wonder about a higher authority.

"Someone--God or someone--took care of us," she said, keeping an eye on her two children. "I don't have any other explanation."

Outside the Northridge Meadows apartments, the survivors had gathered Tuesday morning in hopes of salvaging belongings from the ruins of a buildings they used to call home. Sixteen of their neighbors perished here as the ground floor units in the three-story buildings collapsed beneath the upper levels.

Here, the difference between life and death was a single flight of stairs. The survivors lived to tell the tale of the Northridge Meadows apartments and their own narrow escape.

Their stories may be more dramatic, but all of Los Angeles can speak of a narrow escape. This was a disaster that killed 40 people, put hundreds in the hospital, caused an estimated $1 billion in damage. Yet in a town famous for living life on the edge, for producing high drama in fiction and in fact, we avoided catastrophic death by a few hours on the clock.

Tens of thousands of us drive freeways daily that buckled and broke; yet the number of freeway fatalities was not unlike a normal day. This past Christmas season, thousands of us did our shopping at Northridge Fashion Plaza. We parked in a garage that was turned into 20 tons of rubble, pinning a man underneath it for nine hours Monday morning. We browsed Bullock's, now a ruin.

What are the odds that the quake would have struck us in our sleep?

Not even fifty-fifty.

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The Laskier family vividly recalls when the floor fell out from under them. It was like a sudden drop in an airplane, but with more of a jolt. Much more.

"We're in the parking lot!" an astonished Anat told her husband, Michael. The unit beneath their second-story apartment was crushed. Michael broke glass from a window and went into the cold night darkness. The Laskier's children--9-year-old Ron and 6-year-old Sheer--jumped into their father's arms.

"We went to see if our grandmother was dead. But she wasn't," Sheer said. Their grandmother lives a few blocks north.

Linda Gordon lived on the ground floor apartment in a building identical to the Laskiers'. Her building tilted severely but did not collapse.

Why did one structure collapse and another not? The residents want to know what the building and safety inspectors will find. But on Monday and Tuesday, as they waited to see whether they may be able to salvage their belongings, their conversation focused more on the fickleness of earthquakes and fate itself.

"Everything happened so fast," said Gabriel Pelaez, who moved here from Chicago recently and was living with his brother, Marco. "Like for two or three minutes, everyone was screaming for help."

The Pelaez brothers lived in a second-floor apartment of a building that tilted but didn't fall. Outside, he recalled, they tried to help the less fortunate. Gabriel and Marco pulled a man and a woman from a small opening in one flattened apartment. They helped another man out, but his wife was missing.

"There's no way to get in there," Gabriel said. "There was no more first floor. . . . There was one lady--all I could see were her legs. . . . I couldn't see anything else. I've seen it in movies, but never up close. . . ."

Near Pelaez stood Gustavo Garcia, 27. Garcia managed to get himself and his wife to safety. Now he was more concerned about reports concerning a friend and co-worker, who was feared to have been trapped in his first-floor apartment. It wasn't until Tuesday night that the coroner confirmed that Adam Slatnick was dead.

Garcia survived a larger quake--the Mexico City temblor of 1985. But this time, he and his neighbors were close to the epicenter. "It was just bouncing and bouncing," Garcia said, jerking his hands up and down and sideways to describe the motion.

Nature's unpredictability wasn't the only danger at Northridge Meadows. Firefighters, who weathered the worst aftershocks, were placed in jeopardy due to poor coordination with the Department of Water & Power.

An anxious moment came in the early morning when the electricity was unexpectedly restored. Exposed wire created a risk of electrocution and caused several small fires, said Engineer Frank McCarthy of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

"We were in the middle of recovering a victim" when electrical power was restored, McCarthy said, adding that it was "very possible" for firefighters to have been trapped. Fire prompted rescue workers to abandon the ruins until the flames were extinguished. An hour later, Department of Water & Power shut off the electricity, enabling county firefighters to resume their work.

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