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Wreckers Begin Erasing Painful Reminder of Quake : Recovery: Long-delayed demolition of Northridge Meadows complex, where 16 died in collapse, is expected to take a month.


Workers set out Wednesday to finish the job nature started nine months ago, as wrecking crews commenced demolition of the Northridge Meadows apartment complex, the most searing symbol of human loss in the Jan. 17 earthquake.

At 8:30 a.m., a steel-jawed excavator rumbled onto the north end of the Reseda Boulevard complex, chewing through stucco, wood and glass and laying bare rooms and hallways once inhabited by college students, young couples, families and the elderly. Light flooded into long-darkened rooms, revealing remnants of everyday life at the apartment complex where 16 tenants died when the top two stories of the building collapsed onto the ground floor.

Posters of rock groups were still tacked up on walls. A second-floor bathroom was ripped open, exposing the shower stall and toilet. Near a brown door marked Apt. 303, a single hanger swung inside what was once a hall closet before heavy equipment tore it down.

"Finally," Northridge Meadows survivor Susan Pearson of Temecula said, when told of the long-postponed demolition.

Nowhere in evidence Wednesday were the stray cats reported by worried residents to be living in the collapsed structure. Concern over the safety of the cats was one cause of the delay in demolition.

Animal control officials said that traps set around the complex over the past few days produced a couple of opossums and fewer than 10 feral felines.

"There were very few, substantially less than we had been led to believe," said George Weissman, district supervisor at the West Valley Animal Care and Control Center. If any cats remain inside, "as the vibrations (from demolition work) over the days get a little closer, they'll know to leave," he said.

Wednesday's morning downpour drenched the dilapidated remains of the complex, once a placid suburban haven with 164 units, a swimming pool, putting green and Jacuzzi. But wrecking company representatives said wet weather could be helpful during the monthlong demolition by suppressing dust that may contain traces of asbestos.

"A light rain would be perfect for this operation," said Lawrence E. Grauman of Cleveland Wrecking Co., which was awarded the $282,000 contract by the city.

Few onlookers stopped to watch the first day of demolition, in contrast to the curious crowds that gathered for months after the quake to look, snap photos and buy T-shirts.

Residents were eventually allowed quick dashes inside for small items, but larger possessions--furniture and appliances--were left behind. "They wouldn't let us get our stuff out--just clothes, photos and small things," said Pearson, 30. The tear-down was postponed this year by court order to give investigators time to sift through the rubble for evidence that building flaws may have been partially to blame for the collapse.

Nearly 50 relatives, heirs and neighbors of those who perished have joined in seven wrongful-death lawsuits alleging negligence by the apartment owners, Shashikant and Renuka Jogani. A handful of attorneys involved in the case were on hand to observe the demolition. A trial is scheduled for March.

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