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Rise From Ashes in Laguna Painful : Rebuilding: Determined effort brings home of two fire victims near completion while most owners still struggle through permit process.

October 25, 1994|GREG JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAGUNA BEACH — Homeowner Christopher Tower is on the prowl by 7:30 on most weekday mornings as crews work on the custom-designed house that will replace the home he lost last year when a firestorm roared up a canyon and into his Mystic Hills neighborhood.

The 33-year-old accountant says he has a great contractor and that the crews are doing a wonderful job. But that's his house being built on Pacific Avenue, and Tower wants it to be perfect.

So he spoke out when they forgot to pour a concrete step linking the kitchen and utility room. He raised a protest when carpenters inadvertently framed part of a bedroom wall that was supposed to remain open. "No one," Tower said, "is as intimate with the project as I am. It's as if I'm doing this job. I know these plans inside and out."

Tower's 2,000-square-foot home is one of dozens now under construction in Mystic Hills, a neighborhood that was decimated by wildfire last Oct. 27. With his new home's foundation poured and framing nearly completed, Tower and companion Randy Hupp hope to move back into their home on March 31--months before most other homeowners will even clear the complex municipal permit process.

Tower, whom friends describe as a man constantly in motion, complains that the rebuilding process is achingly slow. Last spring, he grudgingly abandoned a pledge to be back in his own home within a year of the fire, which would be by Thursday.

As the home takes shape, Tower and Hupp, 42, are spending more and more time at the site. "Watching it go up is addictive," Tower said. "It's been a yearlong process and we've lived it every day. But now I'm really comfortable with what we've done."

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One thing they did was agree to let a reporter chronicle major steps of rebuilding the house. They also discovered the need to balance the time-consuming tasks against the demands of their personal and professional lives.

Those demands prompted Tower to change his work habits--he has cut back the time he spends on the job. Hupp, who owns a rehabilitation company, was forced to lay off a third of his employees after the Northridge earthquake destroyed one of the convalescent homes where it provided physical therapy. Causing further stress, Hupp had to start chemotherapy treatment for a recently diagnosed cancer.

Tower, ever the optimist, acknowledged the pressures. "Sometimes," he said, "I wonder when does it all get to be too much."

Hupp remains upbeat: "I'm physically and emotionally strong. . . . I'm positive that (the cancer) will be in remission by the end of the year."

Tower was all smiles as he toured the new home on a recent Saturday morning. Standing in what will be the kitchen when construction is complete, a hole in a wall that will eventually be a window showcases a postcard-perfect view of the Pacific Ocean.

"I'm actually very positive, very happy," he said. "I know that we're going to end up with a new house, a better house, the house of our dreams."

Tower's hard-charging style has helped speed up his rebuilding project in a neighborhood still marked with scorched slabs, vacant lots and empty dreams. But such progress doesn't surprise the accountant's family and friends.

Laguna Beach general contractor Brock Lyster, who is coordinating the building of the house, has dubbed Tower "the grinder."

"He can be very aggressive," said Laguna Beach resident Jill Sloan, who has known Tower for four years. "I consider him to be a very good friend, but sometimes, and he knows it, he can be brutal."

Tower used the force of his personality last Oct. 27 to persuade Sloan to rescue his two cocker spaniels locked in his back yard. When Tower reached Sloan on her car phone, she figured the accountant was overreacting; news reports indicated the fire wasn't a major threat. But Sloan gathered the dogs and even briefly considered the idea of carting some of Tower's other belongings to safety.

As Sloan walked out of Tower's front door to head back down the hill to her own home, all hell broke loose.

"The house across the street was on fire, the house next door was on fire, there was incredibly thick smoke," Sloan said. Visibility was so poor that she could only drive 10 m.p.h. down Skyline Drive with the headlights on and the windshield wipers going. Flames surrounded her car.

The terror-filled trip to the bottom of Skyline Drive ended as Sloan's car bumped into the back of a firetruck. Moments later Sloan, who is comptroller at Citation Builders in Tustin, used her car phone to tell Tower that his home had been destroyed.

Fire crews fought throughout the night to contain the blaze, but reality hit hard when a television crew broadcasting from the Mystic Hills neighborhood showed an eerie landscape punctuated by chimneys, water heaters and burned-out automobiles.

"Once the panic subsided," Tower said, "we called the insurance agent and told him we saw it on TV, burning."

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