Noah Gentile likes to hear his mother tell the story of what happened the night he was born, how it was a night unlike any other.
Noah came into the world four years ago Monday as Los Angeles convulsed in violence after the not guilty verdicts for the white policemen accused of beating a black man named Rodney G. King.
The little boy doesn't understand what a riot is. He does know his older brother, Gil, was born as a hurricane pounded Mexico and the Caribbean and it seems fitting to him that a major event took place at the time of his own birth. So the night of April 29, 1992, is part of Noah's legacy. He is one of hundreds of babies born during the three days and nights that the city burned.
For Noah's parents and others, who rushed to hospitals as rioting mobs torched buildings and beat motorists, a time that should have been indelibly marked by personal jubilation was poisoned by fear and bewilderment. For most of Southern California, the riots long ago faded. In these houses, it resurfaces with every birthday.
"It was hard to be elated that night, given everything that was going on," said Noah's mother, Karen Krygier. "Yes, I had a healthy baby, but my god, what was happening? It was so hard to watch the city go up in flames, yet I had something to counter that view. I had a personal joy that I couldn't help but be affected by."
To many parents whose babies were born during the riots, the children have become symbols of hope at a time when despair and frustration reached a crescendo. The ripples of the strange confluence of events are still playing out. One woman who was 8 1/2 months pregnant was shot in her belly. She delivered a healthy premature baby but continues to live in fear. Another mother, who experiences flashbacks to the shootings she witnessed in her native Nicaragua, longs to move out of state.
What all of them remember is how the riots turned an already hectic experience into a harrowing voyage through a city at war with itself. It was not a matter of reaching the hospital in time, but of getting there untouched by the violence.
New mothers, ordinarily the center of attention, waited as nurses and doctors anxiously whispered news to one another about what was transpiring beyond hospital walls. No one came to congratulate the new parents. No one sent flowers or balloons.
To Elvira Evers, 43, the birth of her daughter, Jessica, was one in a string of miracles that day.
On the fiery afternoon of April 30, the second day of the riots and a couple weeks before she was scheduled to give birth, Evers was shot in the abdomen while standing in the doorway of her Compton apartment, watching bands of looters make their way up Long Beach Boulevard.
Evers did not hear the crack of gunfire or feel its sting. But a 9-millimeter bullet had passed through the wall of her uterus and lodged in the right elbow of her unborn child, making Jessica the riots' youngest gunshot victim.
Just seconds before the bullet struck, Evers said, another daughter, Lionela, then 5, had been clinging to her mother's waist, right in the line of fire. Had Evers not pushed Lionela into the apartment, the child would have taken the bullet in the head.
Earlier in the day, Evers said, Jessica had repositioned herself, shifting heavily from right to left. Thus, the bullet barely grazed her elbow, leaving only a flesh wound that was closed by two stitches.
Also, had Evers not been pregnant, doctors told her, she likely would have died of a severed abdominal aorta.
But these miracles do not mitigate the fear that has dominated the single mother's life since the riots. She fled Compton as quickly as she could, settling in an area of Gardena where the streets are quiet and there is a police station a block away. Still, she rarely leaves the house after dark, walks Lionela to and from school every day and tries her best to confine 14-year-old Marvin and 18-year-old Ahmad to the apartment when they are not in class. She wonders where she will send Jessica to nursery school; the nearest Head Start program is in Compton, and she won't go near there.
Evers lectures her children constantly about the random dangers of the street.
"I don't smoke or do no drugs and I was shot," she said. "Bullets don't know the difference. They have no eyes. They don't know where they're going."
Jessica, a cheerful child with frilly hair ribbons, has only a tiny scar from her traumatic birth. She likes to show visitors newspaper clippings about the day she was born.
Evers worked as a cashier in the McDonnell Douglas cafeteria until Jessica's birth, but has stayed at home since, on public assistance.
"I don't leave her with nobody--with nobody," she said, emphatically. "I owe her that because she saved my life."
A Name of Hope
It is a family joke that when Noah and Gil's parents have a baby, a major event shakes the world.