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COLUMN ONE : Tragedy Before Dawn : From a little girl who loved cookies to a cop who loved his job, these were the victims of Monday's quake.

January 23, 1994|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY and SHERYL STOLBERG and MARC LACEY and DOUG SMITH and JOHN JOHNSON | This story was written and reported by J. Michael Kennedy, Sheryl Stolberg, Marc Lacey, Doug Smith and John Johnson

The numbers kept climbing as first the hours, then the days, slipped by.

The names of the dead.

The young, the old. Businessmen and homemakers. An ex-con on Skid Row. A 4-year-old girl who loved frilly skirts and pink cowboy boots. More than 50 in all.

Roughly a third were in a single apartment complex whose upper two floors collapsed. One couple died when their vast collection of books and model trains fell on them as they slept. An electrician died when he picked up a high voltage wire draped across a car, an act of heroism turned to tragedy.

A woman may have literally died of fright as she rushed to check on her infant son. In the dark, a motorcycle policeman did not see where the temblor had opened a gash in an overpass.

Most of the victims were still in bed when Monday's quake shook the earth at 4:31 a.m. with unrelenting anger. Others risked danger to help someone else. Together, they were the grimmest statistics in this, one of the costliest disasters in U.S. history.

Here are some of their stories.

AMY TYRE-VIGIL: Youngest Victim Had a Last Beautiful Weekend

It had been, in Anastacio Vigil's words, "a beautiful weekend." His wife, Nancy Tyre, and 4-year-old daughter, Amy, had gone to a concert. He had taken Amy on a bike ride. The whole family had gone to the zoo. And Amy had sampled her first meatball Sunday night.

Vigil and Tyre, both 40, had chatted happily about the future, about the second baby, a boy, on the way, about the new house they were going to buy once their Sherman Oaks home sold. Tyre, who like her husband is a family-practice doctor, told a friend she looked forward to having a bigger place when the baby came.

All of that, gone in an instant. Amy was buried Friday afternoon, the youngest victim of the temblor. More than 200 mourners said goodby to the dark-haired girl who loved her artwork, her nursery school, and chocolate chip cookies without nuts.

Her mother was not among those present. Instead, a rabbi went to Valley Presbyterian Hospital to join Tyre, seven months pregnant and bedridden with a broken pelvis, in reciting Yizkor, the Jewish prayer for the dead.

Amy was crushed when the earthquake sent her home hurtling down its hillside, collapsing it into a flattened wreck of wood and stucco, tile and glass. Her father does not remember much about what happened.

"It felt like somebody picked up the house and just violently shook it. Nancy said, 'Get Amy!' As I was getting up there was a big flash of light and a terrible crashing sound. The next thing I remember, I was trapped."

In the darkness, pinned under boards, able only to wiggle his right foot, Vigil heard his wife moaning that she could not breathe. He listened for his daughter, but heard nothing. The silence worried him. He concentrated on trying to calm his wife. "Breathe slowly," he told her. "Breathe slowly. We're going to be OK."

The couple lay there for at least an hour on the ground amid the ruins, too far away to touch one another, talking as they shivered in the cold. Finally, they heard voices. It was the neighbors, venturing outside for the first time.

It took an hour for the rescue workers to pick their way through the rubble. They freed Vigil first. "I felt a human hand on my leg," he said, "and it was just the most beautiful feeling."

He suffered a broken rib, and injuries to his leg and jaw, but he told the doctor who treated him at Sherman Oaks Hospital that he could not stay, that he needed a taxi. He had to find his wife and daughter. Sit down, the doctor told him. He would make some calls.

The emergency physician learned that Tyre and Amy had been taken to Valley Presbyterian. He also learned what had happened to Amy. Gently, he told Vigil that his daughter had been killed. Though the crisis was mounting at his own hospital, the doctor drove Vigil to see his injured wife.

Tyre looked better than he expected. And the baby would be fine.

He grabbed her, held her close, and whispered the wrenching words: "We lost her."

ELIZABETH BRACE: 'And Her Son Will Really Not Have Known Her at All'

Earthquakes terrified Elizabeth Brace.

As a young girl, her family's home had been heavily damaged by the Sylmar quake in 1971. Her husband, Thomas, said there was a certain way she acted when the earth rumbled, a kind of tenseness until the shaking stopped and the danger passed.

At the time of their marriage, he was 43, she 31. They had set about quickly to begin a family. Elizabeth had quit her job when Michelle was born five years ago, followed by Christopher 3 1/2 years later.

Three years ago, the Braces moved to Rancho Cucamonga in San Bernardino County. They wanted a bigger house and a decent school district. Elizabeth had become a Scout leader when Michelle was old enough to be a Daisy. She volunteered as a room mother a couple of days a week when Michelle started kindergarten this year.

It was the good life in a quiet, suburban way.

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