NORTHRIDGE — Breathless from the mad dash up three flights of stairs, Beverly Reading held on to her hard hat Monday and burst into Apartment 333 at Northridge Meadows. It was dark, it was creaky, and the cloying stench of rotting food filled the air.
But Reading, 58, wasn't looking for the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. She was searching for her clowns.
She had just 15 minutes to clear out a place that had been home for two years--until the 6.6-magnitude Northridge earthquake knocked her out of bed and tossed her worldly possessions into an unholy mess.
Reading made a beeline for the clowns, then headed toward the dining room. From there, she moved to the bedroom.
"I used to be a clown collector and I bet they're all gone," she said. Indeed, a headless harlequin lay among the shards of glass, scattered books and broken furniture. But another clown was intact, and Reading stashed it under her arm. The Emmett Kelly prints, too cumbersome to carry, remained behind.
It was a scene reminiscent of a supermarket sweep in hell, repeated Monday in the 40 apartments deemed safest to enter.
Reading worked from a mental list of things she wanted to retrieve most, if she got the chance. The instructions to her daughter, Lee Edwards, were clear:
"Here's my typewriter. And these chairs. I want to look for that book. I want my phone book. . . . My kids' pictures are under here. And my pictures of my parents and my brother. I want their pictures. I don't have my parents' picture. It must be under there," she said, pointing to a pile of papers by the sofa.
"Oh my God, mother. You have too much stuff," Edwards groaned.
In small groups, each accompanied by an inspector with the city's Department of Building and Safety, dozens of former residents returned to the scene of the temblor's highest death toll to salvage their belongings. Makeshift wooden ramps allowed them access from an alleyway through a break in a wall. Survivors piled their belongings, making mini-encampments in the alley before loading them into pickups and utility vehicles. Meanwhile, a crane plucked cars from the collapsed parking structure at the west end of the building.
They were spared aftershocks as they entered the building that has sagged lower each day since Jan. 17.
Occasionally, a resident paused to remember a neighbor who didn't make it out, to wipe away a tear. But Monday was a day for fast and furious work.
The building inspectors were put to use as laborers, carrying armloads of possessions such as microwaves, television sets--and even stuffed animals--from the apartments of the residents they accompanied inside.
"We're trying to organize an orderly withdrawal," building inspector Jim Ashby said. "We don't know when more aftershocks are going to come. A lot of these exits aren't safe. They could run off the end of the building and be gone."
Most of the salvaging occurred on the north side, which building inspectors said was the most stable and accessible section. Later, they will shore up other sections so other residents can retrieve their belongings, said senior building inspector Ronald Black.
"Hey, we're alive. A lot of people aren't. We are the lucky ones," Reading acknowledged. "I rented my apartment because of the color of the kitchen sink. I could have rented one in the front, where it collapsed."
At a meeting Saturday, angry survivors had pressured city officials and the building's owners to let them return.
Since then, someone has left flowers along Reseda Boulevard, in front of the apartments where many of the victims died. The makeshift memorial grows daily, according to a National Guard soldier assigned to patrol the area.
Meanwhile, building inspectors were gleaning the first clues to why the complex at 9565 Reseda Blvd. collapsed.
Robert Harder, chief of the plan check division at the Van Nuys office of the Department of Building and Safety, said that based on preliminary investigations the collapse of the Northridge Meadows Apartments can be attributed mostly to the lack of plywood in the building's walls.
"I would say that the lack of plywood was a major contributor" to the collapse, he said. But the builders have disputed that finding.
Harder said plywood in the walls provides for lateral support and helps keep buildings from shifting and collapsing during a quake.
Harder said his conclusion was based on inspections of the collapsed building and on a study of blueprints for an adjacent apartment building that was designed and built by the same engineer and contractor.
But Harder added that the engineer and contractor on the building most likely followed the building codes that were in place in 1971 when the city issued a permit to build the Northridge Meadows Apartments. Those codes were upgraded after the 1971 Sylmar quake to require stronger reinforcement in the walls and ceilings.
The apartment complex was built on support beams over ground-level carports and, therefore, received less support than would a complex built over a more traditional underground garage, he said.
In an interview last week, Brian Heller, whose company built the apartment complex, said he was searching for the blueprints to investigate for himself what may have caused the collapse.
Heller disputed reports that his company did not use plywood to support the walls. "My recollection is that we used some plywood in the shear walls," he said, referring to the building's support walls.
Heller added that his company built other structures throughout the San Fernando Valley that did not collapse in Monday's earthquake.
Times staff writer Hugo Martin contributed to this story.