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Running the Risk : Why would someone enter a shaky building? To grab anything, even nails, linking them to an old life.

January 31, 1994|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Andre Rogers was trembling and out of breath from his last dash into the ruins of his condemned apartment. But he was smiling. "Jesus didn't save me from a 6.6 quake to kill me now 'cause I came back for my shoes. No sir. No sir. If I didn't die at 4:31 a.m., I'm not going to die now. I believe it!"

In the days after the Northridge earthquake, Rogers, 26, and thousands of other survivors continue to risk life and limb sneaking back into the unstable rubble they once called home.

And they are doing it for every imaginable reason--or non-reason, depending on your perspective.

A young woman climbs through a broken window to rescue a parakeet trapped in a collapsed kitchen.

A man slides down the 45-degree incline of his sunken living room to grab a stack of CDs he "can't live without."

Jim Taylor, 51, ducks under a newly fallen I-beam in the carport beneath his Granada Hills apartment complex to retrieve a can of nails. "I needed them to hang some pictures in my new place," he says with a shrug.

A man in a baseball cap pulls up his truck to the front of a condo on the outskirts of Reseda. Without a word, he hands each of his teen-age sons a hammer and leads them into the ruins of their home.

Quickly and quietly, they empty the swaying rooms of what little is left. Ten nerve-racking minutes later, the 13-year-old has retrieved two plastic milk crates and an old football. His 17-year-old brother has rescued a pink receipt for a lottery ticket and a cork bulletin board papered with family messages and reminders of long-passed doctors' appointments.

"Aren't you afraid to go in there?" the older boy is asked. "Oh, well, sure, 'cause it's unsafe. But Dad says we're not scared--I mean, Dad says it's OK. So we're not scared. . . . You do what you gotta do sometimes, right? That's what Dad says."

*

What makes people take such risks? When is a human life worth a can of nails?

In the throes of disaster, psychologists agree, people cannot be expected to always act rationally.

"Of course, this sort of behavior is irrational, but it's not abnormal--not for what these people have been through. Emotions are never rational," says Carl Frederick, the UCLA professor who wrote the mental health section of the national Disaster Relief Act.

Brett, 35, has been in and out of his condemned apartment several times. The first time was for blankets and water to get through the first day and night. The second time was to save his late grandmother's "truly irreplaceable" Bible. "I couldn't have lived with myself if I hadn't got that out," he says.

Although Brett feared for his life when he was caught in his shaky building during one of the aftershocks, he says what he feared most was being caught by police. "That's why I'm not giving you my last name. I'm an artist and I've had to get all sorts of important pieces out of my place, but I don't want to go to jail for it."

Entering a condemned building is a violation of the Los Angeles Municipal Code and is punishable by fines of up to $1,500 and six months imprisonment. The law is designed to protect displaced residents from their perilous impulses. But as fears grow for the safety of those entering buildings severely damaged by the quake and aftershocks, building and fire officials are mobilizing inspection and escort services to help survivors retrieve belongings from structures in no immediate danger of collapse.

"But people going in alone past the red condemned signs may very well be risking their lives," warns Robert Picott, deputy superintendent of the city's Building and Safety Department. "We understand how traumatized these people are and we're willing to help them, but our first obligation is to protect them from harm."

Fierce attachments to our belongings are not unique to Americans. Medical psychologist Frederick, who has studied survivors' reactions to disaster all over the world, says we may indeed be materialistic, but such feelings are even more intense in other cultures.

"After Hurricane Fifi hit Honduras in 1974, 5,000 people lost their homes and it was like losing a part of themselves," Frederick recalls. "When they were told they could never return, hundreds of them committed suicide. They died rather than leave that piece of land. If somebody in Beverly Hills had lost their home and were told to move and get another one some place else, they wouldn't kill themselves over it."

Still, it is not unusual in times of great loss for some victims to seem possessed by their possessions, says Barbara Blasdel, a San Francisco trauma therapist.

"We pick things that will give us some sense of control. An old pair of shoes may be a sign of comfort. It's a way of trying to impose some sort of control over the chaos," Blasdel says. "Going back for something is a way of reaching back for fragments of their old lives so they can start again. Even if it is dangerous."

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