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Hours of Terror in the Rubble, Dust : Quake: At collapsed apartment, many were pinned in the ruins. Some survived a seeming eternity, others died holding a loved one.

January 24, 1994|ANN W. O'NEILL and HENRY CHU | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Third-story dwellers groped through darkened hallways, crawling up floors that had buckled three feet high in places. They picked their way down crumbled stairwells into the courtyard.

Some of the older renters, who with college students made up the bulk of the tenants, had to be carried away from the building.

Michael Kubeisy, a free-lance photographer who lived on the top floor on the western edge of the complex, relied on faith to escape an apartment riddled with gaping holes in the floor.

"I'm a Christian. The Scripture says: '(God) will direct your path,' " Kubeisy, 34, said. "I have no doubt that's what happened."

Out in the hallway, he and a friend pounded on doors, called out to those still trapped and shepherded a trembling elderly neighbor onto a hanging ladder thrown up by others.

"He didn't want to come out. So I literally looked into his eyes and said, 'Norm, you don't have an option,' " Kubeisy said.

Then a familiar smell brought him up short.

"Turn off the gas barbecues! Turn off the gas!" he yelled frantically.

Survivors had lighted candles. A few in the courtyard were smoking cigarettes. Tenants aware of the danger ordered everyone to extinguish the flames. Resident Robin Dunn, a gas company employee, scrambled to shut off gas to the building.

Still trapped within the walls of the complex, down the corridor from Kubeisy, Curt Harkless hammered his way out of his apartment, although he had sprained his left hand when the floor of his bedroom fell out from under him. With the same hammer, he freed the woman next door, who pleaded for sugar and something to drink. Harkless handed her a Pepsi, one of three cans he had slipped into his jacket on the way out.

Together they inched down the hall, joined by others who kicked in doors along the way. Within minutes they descended into the courtyard, where dozens of dazed survivors were gathering.

Once a tranquil suburban sanctuary complete with putting green, swimming pool, Jacuzzi and a network of running streams, the courtyard resembled a war zone. Trees had fallen. Shattered glass was everywhere. Older residents huddled in chairs, babies bawled, and young and old hugged each other in consolation.

Mary McDonald tried to comfort her friend Elizabeth Plant, who was suffering from chest pains. Both women had managed to break out of first-floor apartments.

Jon Blatt of Apt. 263 became Northridge Meadows' link to the outside world. With Pearson's help, he squeezed out of the complex through a gap in the northwest wall, then ran for the fire station at Lassen Street, a mile north.

The firefighters had gone.

"There were two ladies in lawn chairs sitting on the driveway of the fire station, and I said: 'Where are the firemen?' " recalled Blatt, 25. "I said: 'Look, you have to tell them that 9565 Reseda Boulevard has collapsed. People are dying in there.' "

Firefighters, when they passed at 4:40 a.m., had noticed that the building was in trouble. But they had other problems, too: a mall collapse, several major fires and a multitude of gas leaks. It would be another 45 minutes before they could work their way back to Northridge Meadows.

Back in the courtyard, Beverly Reading hoped that her friend Ruth Wilhelm, 77, a recent widow who lived in Apt. 127, would appear, but she knew hope was slight.

Pearson had tried to save Wilhelm after seeing her leg protruding from a pile of beams and hearing her hoarse cries.

But when he returned with a neighbor, he was met with silence. Desperate, Pearson crawled into the tiny crevice that had been the woman's bedroom.

"I yelled at her, shined a light in, pushed a leg, tried to get her to respond to me," he said. "Unfortunately, she had passed away."

Pearson wept.

Even without tears, it was impossible for anyone to see clearly. The lights were out. The moon had set hours ago. A red glow from a nearby fire brought embers but no illumination. Only a few flashlight beams sliced through the pitch darkness--and until dawn, they were the only source of light.

Worried relatives were converging on the complex.

Angeline Cerone, 80, whom everyone knew as Ann, had lived in Apt. 103 for more than two decades. When no one answered the phone, her grandson, Stephen, 28, rushed over from Van Nuys. When he peered inside what he thought was his grandmother's unit, he was puzzled to see furniture and personal items that he did not recognize. Suddenly, he realized he was squinting into a second-story apartment, and that his grandmother's unit was beneath.

Two doors away, Hyun Sook Lee screamed for her sons and her husband. There was no response from Pil Soon or their older son, Howard, 14, but finally 12-year-old Jason answered. His legs were pinned. Unable to move herself, she told him to fight free of the debris. He cried that he couldn't.

"Keep trying," his mother commanded. Finally, Jason yanked his legs free, straining so hard that he dislocated his right leg. The toes on his other foot were crushed and bleeding but Jason began crawling in the rubble.

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