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California and the West

Slide Show

Ill-Fated Hillside Homes in Laguna Niguel Are Drawing a Crowd

March 30, 1998|TINI TRAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAGUNA NIGUEL — The line of cars was thundering down Crown Valley Parkway when the brake lights unexpectedly came on.

Deputy Stan Blaszak watched with a knowing look Sunday afternoon as a passing red Ferrari downshifted to a crawl, its driver and passenger craning their necks for a glimpse of Orange County's newest tourist attraction: a series of spectacular home slides, the most recent occurring early Sunday morning.

"Everyone's curious. They can't help it," Blaszak said. "Remember, this is something that doesn't happen very often."

And so it was for the rest of his seven-hour shift as sentry at the Crown Cove condominiums, which sit at the base of the crumbling hill. A steady stream of people--"easily 100 or more"--with binoculars, cameras, and even video cameras in hand, walked up to the site throughout the day, not to mention the hundreds that drove past to get a panoramic view of the destruction on the hillside above them, Blaszak said.

Early Sunday morning, the latest in a string of homes on the hillside split in half, plunging into the ravine behind it. The vacated house, at 30602 Via Estoril, tumbled from its foundation around 4 a.m., said Lt. Rich Paddock of the Orange County Sheriff's Department.

There were no injuries, and the row of homes on the ridge, as well as half of the condominiums below, had already been evacuated.

So far, two homes have plunged to their destruction, and two other homes have been ripped in half. Below, nine condominium units have been destroyed or severely damaged, and at least a dozen more residences are threatened.

Scattered showers and thunderstorms predicted for Tuesday could well erode the saturated slopes, sending the rest of the homes down the hill.

A number of residents have blamed the destruction in the exclusive Niguel Summit subdivision on shoddy development, accelerated by a rain-saturated hillside that finally gave way. But many onlookers appeared focused on the result, not the cause.

"I'm just here to look," said Torrie Gonzales, 20, of Costa Mesa. "I saw it on TV and I was just curious. It's crazy, it's just insane. It seems so unreal."

On the first day of the slide, there was a five-car collision at the intersection because a driver was gawking at the view, said Blaszak.

"It's the same thing that happens on the freeways," he said. "They're slowing down to take a look and they're not paying attention."

Some onlookers were fascinated enough to park illegally along the road, risking a $30-$40 ticket.

But others came to look at the devastation with a sense of gratefulness. Jack Higgins, a 10-year resident of the neighborhood, lives on the hill behind Via Estoril, but at one point, had considered buying a home on the devastated ridge.

"You look at that and think, 'It could have been me,' " he said.

He has been recording the steady erosion with his camera on at least four separate days.

"I've been chronicling the whole thing to send to friends and family back East," he said. "They've seen it on television, and we've gotten a lot of concerned calls. It's hard to describe unless you see it."

On a serene, sunny day, with cotton-puff clouds in the distance, the idea that pricey homes can be smashed into little more than piles of debris seemed unreal, but the sight was hard to erase.

"I think the drama is in coming up-close and personal," said Carol Hurley of Laguna Hills, another visitor. "On TV, you feel distanced. But seeing this, it's devastating. You feel really bad for all these people who have lost their homes."

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