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Displaced Tenants Still Feel Aftershocks of Explosion

Housing: Residents have been unable to retrieve belongings from the damaged Encino complex and are struggling to meet the costs of resettling.

July 07, 2002|KARIMA A. HAYNES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Juanita Hill, 72, lies awake at night worrying about how she and her son, Daniel, 48, are going to come up with an extra $200 a month to pay the rent on an apartment they had to lease after their unit in the Park Encino housing complex was severely damaged in a fiery blast six weeks ago.

Plumber Dror Senderov, 66, struggles to make out what people are saying after he suffered partial hearing loss in both ears as a result of the explosion, caused by a tenant's attempt to fix a natural gas stove, which resulted in that man's death.

Bank teller Shoereh Rashidsarokhi, 37, wonders how she will fulfill her dream of becoming a full-time graphic artist without the computer equipment she had to leave behind when she and 300 other residents fled their homes after the May 24 incident, which caused $5 million in damage to the building and its contents.

Although the residents said they are grateful to be alive, some, such as Rashidsarokhi, said they feel as if their world has been turned upside down.

"I have been working all my life trying to make it," she said. "All of a sudden, I am put outside my door with nothing."

Rashidsarokhi said her once stable life has turned nomadic. She lived in a motel for three weeks and now rents a room month to month. Even putting together outfits suitable to wear to the office is a chore.

"All of my stuff is in there," she said, referring to her former studio apartment at Park Encino. "I don't know whether I should buy new things or whether I will be able to get my own stuff. I am just waiting."

Her former neighbor, Hill, who suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome and a degenerative muscle disorder, said she has lost many nights' sleep wondering how she and her son, a sign maker, will pay the $1,162 rent on their new Lindley Avenue apartment.

"We made the rent this month, but what about next month?" she said, choking back tears. "I am so upset by the whole thing. I haven't been able to do anything--I'm too stressed."

Christina Cogan, 19, and her husband, Carlos Cordova, 23, are trying to make a home for their 2-year-old daughter in an apartment with few pieces of furniture and no toys or a TV.

"I stay home all day. I don't have anything. My daughter doesn't have anything to do," said Cogan, who is expecting the couple's second child in September. "I hope to be out of this situation by the time the baby comes."

Her former neighbors, Senderov and his wife, Margarita, moved Thursday to a new apartment, after sleeping on the floor of a friend's apartment for a month. They still go to their friend's home for meals because all their cookware is still at Park Encino, he said.

"We are like gypsies," Senderov said.

Senderov said he had come home for lunch May 24 and was parking his truck in front of the 130-unit apartment complex in the 5300 block of Newcastle Avenue in Encino when the building exploded.

He grabbed his cell phone, punched in his phone number and yelled to his wife to get out of the building. The couple found each other on the street amid firetrucks, police cars and other traumatized residents.

Now, he said, he and his wife just want to collect their belongings and move on.

But, along with the other tenants, they have been kept out of the complex by security guards because of asbestos contamination.

"All my furniture is in the old apartment," he said, "but they won't let me take it because of asbestos. The refrigerator and pots and pans--we should be able to take them. We can wash them with soap and water."

South Coast Air Quality Management District officials have determined that portions of the apartment complex are contaminated with asbestos, agency spokesman Sam Atwood said.

Asbestos, a fiber used as a fire retardant and insulator, was outlawed in the mid-1970s after studies showed exposure could cause cancer and other diseases.

The material was found in a collapsed section of the building containing nine units, as well as in fire doors, acoustic ceilings, stucco and other areas of the three-story building, Atwood said.

Property owner Avi Rojany and GLE Group, an El Segundo-based construction company, have filed plans, approved by the air quality district, for asbestos removal from the building.

David Bahng, a construction consultant at GLE Group, said a meeting is planned for Monday to hammer out the details.

Former residents say Rojany has not told them whether they will be able to retrieve their belongings or move back. Six former tenants have filed a lawsuit in Small Claims Court, asking for the return of their security deposits and reimbursement for relocation costs. Rojany could not be reached for comment.

The American Red Cross of Greater Los Angeles provided vouchers for temporary housing, food, clothing, toiletries and household items to 114 families and continues to assist 20 families, spokeswoman Brenda V. Castillo said. Elderly residents also received assistance to replace medication, eyeglasses and medical equipment.

Seven residents have applied for low-interest loans, which can be used for resettlement costs. The loans are administered by the city of Los Angeles from funds provided by the federal Small Business Administration, said Anna Burton, a spokeswoman for the city's Department of Emergency Preparedness.

Even so, welder Shemon Baharouzi, 45, said more needs to be done to assist displaced residents, especially now that the incident is fading from public attention.

"In the beginning, everyone was out here willing to help, but now we feel forgotten," he said. "They give billions of dollars to help people overseas, but there is nothing for us. It's frustrating."

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