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FIRST PERSON / DAVID GROVES

Perspective Remains Intact : For one Westsider, recovery has meant keeping a sense of humor in the face of a daunting task--finding a new home.

January 24, 1994

David Groves, 38, was a resident of the 178-unit Sea Castle Apartments in Santa Monica until Monday, when the nine-story building was condemned due to earthquake damage. In December, he wrote the "On Being Santa" column for the Times' Westside section.

*

When the earthquake hit, I was in bed in my fifth-floor apartment doing something absurd: deep-breathing exercises to beat insomnia. When the shaking started, I immediately opened my eyes and jumped out of bed.

I wasn't alarmed, though.

I've been through 40,000 of these, I thought, I'll make it through this one.

But when the shaking had stopped and I looked around my bedroom, I saw that my bookcase had fallen flat on my bed, dumping out books, a phone, boxes, everything.

Man, I thought, that's where my head was. If I hadn't been awake already...

I opened the front door and looked into the hallway. It was then that I noticed that I was wearing nothing but my underwear.

This is life or death, I thought, and began to run down the hallway.

I went 20 yards and stopped. Nawww, I don't think so, I thought, and ran back into my apartment to grab a bathrobe.

The scene I encountered roaming down the stairs was like something from a nightmare. The super-bright fire-alarm lights were flashing every five seconds--bright white, pitch dark, bright white, pitch dark--and the fire alarm was blaring on and off.

Strangely, there was no one else in the halls. Running desperately down five flights of stairs, I didn't run into anybody there, either. It was like one of those nightmares where you're running through an empty metropolis and looking down every street and alleyway, yelling: "Hello!" Is anybody there?! Where is everybody?!"

But within 15 minutes, the tenants finally came filing out of the building, including George, an elderly man who two neighbors helped evacuate by carrying him down six flights of stairs in his wheelchair.

After half an hour, I ran back up to the fifth floor despite numerous aftershocks in order to get warmer clothes. Using my flashlight, I saw for the first time what an absolute mess my apartment was. It confirmed for me what all single men know in their bones: that all cleaning is ultimately futile.

The residents of the Sea Castle Apartments lingered around the front of the building's central tower. Much of the tower's brick wall had fallen, exposing the elevator shaft at two upper floors. Some residents said their apartments were filled with 1 1/2 feet of water from broken pipes.

At 8 a.m., a public official declared the building condemned.

That's when I knew I was going to have to find a new home.

*

In the last week, earthquake recovery has become my full-time job. Moving the contents of my apartment down five flights of stairs on a dolly. Running when strong aftershocks hit.

Thinking on the run, "Will I go tumbling down in a sea of brick and beams and plaster, clutching onto my box of Quaker 100% Natural?"

Renting personal storage space. Peeking through a crack in the fourth-floor stairwell and seeing an inch of daylight. Finding a place to sleep. Trying not to think about when I showered last.

I have become--quite against my will--a walking-and-breathing pathetic story. People hear what I've gone through and they offer help without being asked.

It's actually quite touching. Five friends have offered to put me up, and nearly every friend I've called has offered to help me move out of my building.

In my 20s, my mother used to complain that I put friends over family, but this is a striking confirmation that friends can actually be a kind of wonderful family.

The scene in the Sea Castle parking lot has been like a combination swap meet and family reunion. Everyone whose face I recognize from the building becomes a long-lost friend.

I used to shoot cold glares at Frank, the cranky 80-year-old with horrible eyesight who used to rant at me in some indecipherable language when I had trouble with my lobby key.

But I had heard that Frank had fallen and couldn't get up.

So when I saw Frank in the parking lot, I was truly concerned.

"How are you doing, Frank?" I asked, putting my hand on his shoulder. "Are you all right?"

He seemed fine.

Petty grudges should disappear in the face of tragedy.

You hear incredible stories in the parking lot too. For example, the brick, wood and plaster from the damaged tower fell five stories into the apartment of Greg and Barbara Batista.

"I woke up to a crash, and my first reaction was to grab my 1 1/2 year old son," said Greg Batista, 33. "Then I tried to leave the apartment in the dark, and I bumped into this rubble. It turned out to be rubble five feet high and 20 feet square blocking my front door.

"But the worst part was waiting for an hour and a half in the dark with my wife and child, yelling outside at the firefighters that we were trapped, with the water rising up to a foot and a half in our apartment, and the aftershocks..."

When talking about the quake, "eerie" is a word that my neighbors have used a lot.

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