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Laguna Beach Home Slides Down Wet Hill Into Ravine

Weather: Family of four escapes just minutes before the collapse. In Malibu two slides are expected to keep PCH closed until Tuesday.

March 09, 1998|TINI TRAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the continuing aftermath of this winter's drenching rains, a hillside home in Laguna Beach slipped from its foundation at dawn Sunday and collapsed into a ravine, while in Malibu officials predicted that two other slides will keep part of Pacific Coast Highway closed until Tuesday.

Laguna Beach house owners Paul Gunther, 36, and his wife Kitmen, 34, escaped with their two small children just minutes before the home sank into the canyon below.

"I was jolted awake by a large popping sound, almost like a balloon exploding," Paul Gunther said. "When I walked around the house to investigate, the whole structure was creaking and popping. I woke up my wife, we grabbed the kids and ran."

In their haste, the family left all their belongings behind.

"I didn't even have time to grab shoes," Gunther said, standing in sneakers borrowed from a neighbor.

Meanwhile, a stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu was expected to remain closed to all traffic, including pedestrians, until Tuesday due to rockslides, authorities said.

The rain-soaked coastal hills continued to crumble, forcing officials to close the highway between Topanga Canyon and Las Flores Canyon roads early Saturday morning. No injuries were reported.

"Travelers coming down Topanga Canyon Road from Los Angeles will be able to turn left to Santa Monica but not north," Los Angeles County Sheriff Sgt. William Hynes said.

On Sunday, crews continued to work to shore up the hillside and clear the debris.

In Laguna Beach, the remains of the 3,600-square-foot, five-bedroom home at 1413 Cerritos Drive bore dramatic testament to the ground-shifting beneath its foundation.

The slide was the latest incident in this scenic Orange County coastal enclave, which has suffered through some of the worst storm damage of the winter. Mudslides on slopes made unstable by torrential rains last month killed two people, injured dozens, and battered or destroyed 300 homes.

Capt. Paul Workman of the Laguna Beach Police Department said a 911 call came in at 6:42 a.m., when a neighbor reported that the Gunthers' house was splitting in two.

Five minutes later, the first of several fire engines had arrived on the scene, but the crews, along with the Gunthers, could only watch as the home slowly cracked open. Within 45 minutes, the entire house and garage had caved in and ripped loose from the metal and concrete foundation.

Authorities evacuated the residents of the two homes next to the Gunthers' until geologists can determine whether the earth has stabilized.

The Gunthers' home, valued at $600,000, was not among the 18 houses that had been tagged earlier by city officials as dangerous.

Next-door neighbor Jason Paransky, who was evacuated, said he and his girlfriend Joan Bauer were asleep when the noise shocked them out of bed.

"It was a loud thundering sound as [the home] slid down the hill," he said. "Thirty seconds later it was gone, and the dust was rising."

Bauer, clutching a geologist's report done on their home before they bought it in November, said, "We're hopeful the ground's stable, but you can't tell. Obviously it's a concern when you've had a landslide next door."

In the aftermath, neighbors gathered to offer shelter and assistance to the family. Kitmen Gunther, 3-year-old daughter Natasha and 1-year-old son Christian were given refuge at a friend's home. Others came by to offer hugs and condolences.

Under sunshine and blue skies, Gunther pointed to the shimmering ocean view that the family had enjoyed for the past three years and said, "I'd like to stay."

Gazing over the edge of his sidewalk down into the rubble of his home, Gunther added, "I'm planning to rebuild right here. I can stay calm right now because I know I've got a strong support system of family and friends."

Times staff writer Daniel Yi contributed to this report.

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