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After the Train Wreck: Family Is at Loose Ends

June 29, 2003|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

It helped that they found the cat on Tuesday evening.

They weren't really concerned about lost possessions. Luis Carlos Vasquez and his wife, Carmen, could live without the clothes, the appliances, even the beloved collections -- Carmen's angels and Cabbage Patch dolls, Luis' Hot Wheels cars. After a string of runaway rail cars smashed into their two tiny houses -- one yellow, one blue -- in Commerce more than a week ago, they were grateful to be alive.

"Shoes, clothes -- all that can be replaced. My brother and sister can't be," said daughter Liliana, 20, of her sister, Liza, 18, and brother, Luis Carlos, Jr., 31.

Liza, six months pregnant and the only family member in the home when the train crashed, was waking at night in the hotel where they are staying, crying and saying she wanted to go home. So Tuesday evening, when the light was dim enough to soften the sight of the wreckage, Luis Carlos took Liza back. They stood at the edge of the Davie Avenue cul-de-sac where their houses were now just shards of walls.

That's when they saw the cat. "Buttons!" Liza cried out, spying the family pet on a nearby rooftop. There was a chase to the next cul-de-sac, but finally Liza had the family pet back in her arms.

"Finding that cat was super, super therapy for her," Luis Carlos said. "She forgot all about the house."

The Vasquez family has begun post-disaster life with an odd mix of homelessness and all-expenses-paid hotel life, courtesy of the Union Pacific railroad. They move from the mundane -- making arrangements for the mail -- to the intense. They dissolve into tears during a counseling session.

The evening of the disaster, with other uprooted families, they were whisked off by city officials to Target for a free shopping spree where they spent a frantic hour grabbing underwear, deodorant, shoes and clothes.

Their temporary home is the Crowne Plaza Hotel, a curving high-rise with polished lobby floors and a touch of Vegas glitz -- the hotel flows into the Commerce Casino. Despite the housekeeping, in-room movies and restaurants, it is more limbo than heaven.

"I don't know how many stars this hotel is," said Luis Carlos, 59, an animated man who wears his silvery hair in a ponytail, "but it's not my lifestyle."

He stood in his hotel living room last week, a sunny view of the industrial city out the window.

"I appreciate this -- don't get me wrong," he said. "But I can't take much more of this. We are in a golden ... "

"Cage," his wife said, finishing his thought.

While Carmen, 53, is a picture of calm and gracious restraint, Luis is outgoing and loquacious, even as he apologizes several times for English learned from television and co-workers. Carmen has worked for 10 years in the order entry department at Old Castle Glass. Luis, now suffering from a disability, worked at a warehouse operating a machine that mixed fruit into yogurt.

He and his wife were born in Mexico and became naturalized citizens in the late 1990s. All of their children were born in the United States. They moved 26 years ago to one of the houses by the tracks after their eldest child's birth. "I hated seeing my son, 3 or 4, in an apartment when other kids had yards to run around," Luis said.

Their house sat barely 20 feet from the tracks, but their son could run and play in the nearby cul-de-sac, or "keyhole" as Vasquez calls it for the shape that the little dead-end mimics. They rented the yellow house at 1542 Davie Ave. for a year before buying it and the adjacent blue one, 1544, which they then rented out. Two years ago, the couple moved into the blue house and gave over the yellow one to their children. Luis, Jr., Liliana, a hairstylist, and Liza and her boyfriend, 18-year-old Steve Velasquez -- both college students -- were living there until the train crash.

Each has dealt differently with the disaster. Carmen has had headaches and can't sleep. Luis paces.

"At night, my mind jumps from one thing to another," he said.

Liliana plays Jenga and Monopoly in the hotel room. Liza, who is expecting a baby boy, wouldn't even leave the room at first. Her boyfriend dreamed that she told him he had to stop playing the video games in the room because Union Pacific wouldn't pay for it anymore.

At the group therapy session, they all cried when Liza said she thought she was going to die in the house. Only Luis, Jr. did not attend. He was the one who ran into the house and pulled Liza out before the structure collapsed. "He's having a hard time," said Luis, Sr. "Sometimes I think he's more injured mentally than Liza."

The therapist taught them techniques for relaxation. "He showed us how to breathe if we had anxiety or panic attacks," Carmen said.

The next move, after the hotel, will be to rental lodgings. The railroad, Luis Carlos said, will pay the rent and give them money to buy furniture.

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