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Evacuees Return After Gas Lifts : Victims: Relief is mixed with apprehension as those forced from homes relive 'a crazy night.'

August 09, 1995|GREG HERNANDEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LA HABRA — Sitting on the porch of his family's modest home Tuesday afternoon, 12-year-old Gustavo Mendez was exhausted and dazed, recovering from one of the worst nights of his young life.

The youngster, who will be a sixth-grader at Washington Middle School this fall, said he became violently ill and was taken to the hospital by ambulance following an ammonia leak at a cold-food storage facility near his home.

"I was playing football in the street when something started to smell," he said. "The policeman told us to go to the park so I did, then I had a headache and was dizzy and started throwing up."

The boy was among about 1,000 residents evacuated from the neighborhood surrounding the plant after the leak was detected Monday evening. He and five other residents were hospitalized but were released by Tuesday.

The boy's father, Romaldo Mendez, said he and his wife endured a couple of anxious hours because they were shopping when the evacuation occurred and could not find their son at the shelter set up by the American Red Cross at nearby La Habra Community Center.

"When they told me he was in the hospital, I got scared," said the father, his eyes red from lack of sleep.

Romaldo Mendez expressed relief that his son was released from the hospital after an examination and tests. But he said he is now wary of the plant located so close to his home.

"They have to pay more attention to what they are doing there," he said. "We were all so scared."

On Tuesday, residents had returned home and sat out on the front porches of their houses, most of which do not have air conditioning, talking about the ordeal.

Noe Tafolla, 13, sat with his mother and 3-month-old brother and recalled what he called "a crazy night."

"I was worried because of the baby," Noe said, pointing to baby Jesus in his mother's arms. "We were watching a Spanish novella when the police came. We got really worried and went to our grandmother's house. But I still couldn't sleep because I was afraid something would happen."

*

Many residents said the evacuation the night before had been so hasty that they grabbed little besides the clothes on their backs and hadn't even locked doors and windows. What was supposed to be a brief disruption at dinner time stretched into 12 hours for many residents, some of whom slept in a community center. Others spent the night in a nearby park.

Many people said they were too shaken to go to work after they were allowed to return home Tuesday morning.

Noe's mother, Rose Tafolla, said she bears no ill will toward operators of the plant.

"It was an accident," she said.

Frank Hernandez, 21, said he whisked his pregnant girlfriend to the movies once the evacuation began.

"It all happened so fast," he said. "It was like, bam! Then there was police on the loudspeaker saying that we had to evacuate because it was a disaster area."

Ricardo Vallejo, 24, said he was sitting with friends on a front porch when he got a headache from the odor.

"I went home to go to bed and the next thing I knew there were policemen on the loud speaker," he said.

Vallejo said he was scheduled to wake up at 3 a.m. in order to leave early for a roofing job in Long Beach. Instead, he spent the night without sleep and unable to get into his home or to his car.

"People were scared and angry that we had to leave our homes," Vallejo said. "We didn't know when we could go back, we didn't have the right clothes, and a lot of people missed their jobs today."

*

Despite the inconvenience, Vallejo had only praise for law enforcement and Red Cross officials.

"We've never had anything this big happen in this city," said Vallejo, a 10-year resident. "Everyone was out of control and didn't know what to do. But they created the shelter and they did a real good job. I was very impressed."

Manuel Sambrano, who lives a couple of streets away, never made it to the shelter.

The 34-year-old father of three said he ignored orders by police to evacuate his home because he suffers from agoraphobia, an abnormal fear of being in open and public places.

"I was hyperventilating from the odor and from fear I guess," Sambrano said. "I told the officer that I couldn't leave."

Sambrano said he has rarely ventured from his front yard in the last three years.

"I couldn't leave," Sambrano said. "So, I just closed the windows and turned on the air conditioning. I just hope it doesn't happen again because I can't get out."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Poison Air A broken gauge was blamed for a leak of pure ammonia that forced the evacuation of about 1,000 people. Some facts about ammonia: * Pure ammonia is commonly used in commercial refrigeration and is very toxic. * Ammonia has a colorless, poisonous, gaseous form that can be distinguished by its irritating odor. * Depending on an individual's age and health, exposure to ammonia could kill.Source: La Habra Fire Department

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