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WESTSIDE / COVER STORY : Jolted : Some Westside residents are pondering a move to safer environs, but others vow to tough it out. All must decide how--and where--to put their lives back in order.

January 20, 1994|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Robin Axelrod prayed, and then the earth shook.

Axelrod, in the early stages of labor with her first child, had just scribbled in the chapel prayer book at Santa Monica Hospital Medical Center on Monday when it started. "The walls were splitting. Things were flying," said Axelrod, who was moved along with other expectant mothers to a makeshift emergency room.

By Tuesday morning, she had little Caitlin--and a "when-you-were-born" story she can't wait to share. "I'm going to tell her she's a lucky baby," Axelrod said. "She came into a very crazy day."

Try crazy week.

The local earthquake toll was overshadowed by deadlier destruction in the San Fernando Valley, but the Westside suffered far more than the severing of the Santa Monica Freeway, in many ways the area's umbilical cord to the rest of the world.

From fallen cliff-top mansions to crumpled low-rent apartments, the Westside suffered widespread damage. The toll was worst in and around Santa Monica, where an ailing 11-year-old girl's heart gave out in the panic and many residents were left homeless.

For some, the shock of it all prompted talk of leaving a place that seemed as doomed as their smashed crystal.

"I don't know what the hell we're going to do, but I really don't think we'll have kids here," said Peter Merwin, a 35-year-old architect who moved from Houston with his wife in April. Already discouraged by the slow economy, the couple are talking seriously of moving away. "If there was a job and I had fulfilled my rent obligations, we'd leave immediately."

For others, post-quake soul-searching led to the opposite conclusion.

"My husband's from Pennsylvania and he wants to move," said one woman. "I said, 'Forget it.' I like excitement. I like life. I'm going to the opera tomorrow."

She added: "I hope it's open."

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Prompting the kitchen-table debates was the biggest seismic blow to the Westside since the 1933 Long Beach earthquake. "We've never had condemned buildings like we have right now, the possible tear-downs," said Bob Gabriel, an insurance broker and member of the Santa Monica Historical Society who has lived in the city since 1946. "I've never seen the likes of it since I've been in Santa Monica."

In all, four Westside residents were reported dead--all from heart attacks believed to have been brought on by the quake--and hundreds of others were treated for everything from severe head injuries to broken legs and cut feet. Santa Monica Fire Department spokeswoman Roni Roseberg said the 11-year-old girl, Mahini Baloch, had a history of heart problems.

Throughout the Westside, building inspectors closed down dozens of cracked and weakened structures.

Los Angeles police on Wednesday closed a one-mile stretch of Olympic Boulevard in West Los Angeles after the six-story Barrington Building appeared to be collapsing.

Windows on the glass and concrete office building at 11665 Olympic Boulevard near Barrington Avenue had buckled and more than a dozen large cracks could be seen. Chunks of concrete and glass fell during a mild aftershock Wednesday afternoon.

"We want to get this thing torn down before it falls down on itself," Sgt. Stan Schott said.

At least 200 buildings in Santa Monica were known to have been seriously damaged, including two seaside landmarks--the Pritikin Longevity Center and the Sea Castle apartment building.

A curfew darkened Main Street's busy restaurant strip Monday and several damaged hotels have been turning away guests. Santa Monica Place, the city's only shopping mall, closed for a week to survey damage. On Wednesday at least 2,300 Santa Monica homes and businesses were still without gas.

Broken storefront windows invited scattered looting--empty jewelry cases for rings were found strewn along a street near the Third Street Promenade. Showroom windows were shattered for several blocks of a popular shopping district along Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles.

The Metropolitan Community Church in Culver City lost much of its facade and part of its domed roof. The church last year was reinforced to resist earthquakes. "If we hadn't done that, the whole roof would have caved in," said pastor Nancy Wilson.

The earthquake jiggled several bungalows off their foundations in West Hollywood and Culver City and toppled life-size statues of the Virgin Mary in Santa Monica's Woodlawn Cemetery. In pricey Bel-Air, the force knocked a dozen half-million-dollar hilltop homes off their foundations.

Both Santa Monica hospitals were forced to clear damaged wings and temporarily halt all incoming non-emergency admissions. Staffers at Santa Monica Hospital slogged through flooded corridors and set up a table outdoors to track patient transfers. One mother delivered her baby in an administrative office. At St. John's, the obstetrics floor was left windowless, its outside wall crisscrossed by gashes. By Wednesday, the hospitals had resumed most services.

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