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Quake Bill Is a Sad Victory for Victim's Parents

A measure to require warning placards on some brick buildings becomes law.

September 27, 2004|Daryl Kelley | Times Staff Writer

Days after a landmark Paso Robles building collapsed in a strong earthquake, crushing 20-year-old Jennifer Myrick in a cascade of bricks, her parents lay in bed agonizing over how to turn their daughter's death into more than a personal tragedy.

"The idea came to me like a light; I grabbed my husband's arm and said, 'Honey, I know what we're going to do,' " said Vicky Myrick. Nine months later, despite Republican opposition, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed "Jenna's Bill" into law.

The new Jennifer Lynn Myrick Memorial Law institutes fines for owners of thousands of old brick buildings in severe earthquake zones, which cover most of the state, who fail to post at the entrance an 8-by-10-inch placard stating: "Earthquake Warning: This is an unreinforced masonry building. You may not be safe inside or near unreinforced masonry buildings during an earthquake."

Local officials may fine them $250 for a first offense and $1,000 if they still refuse to post the sign. In addition, anyone can seek a court order to force the posting. Renters and lease holders must also be notified of the hazard.

Tuesday's bill-signing ended Vicky and Leroy Myricks' sometimes frustrating journey through the lawmaking process with a victory they said they needed badly.

"We were in tears when we saw he signed it," Vicky Myrick said. "Nothing will take the place of our daughter, but now we can feel that something good may come out of this terrible situation."

On Dec. 22, Jennifer Myrick drove the new white Mustang her father had bought her to work at Ann's Dress Shop in downtown Paso Robles. It was her third week on the job. A 2002 graduate of King City High School in the Salinas Valley, she had moved in with her fiance in Atascadero and was embracing life as a young woman in love, her parents said. But just four days after her birthday, the state's strongest earthquake in five years struck the Central Coast. Jennifer was crushed as she fled the dress shop, one of several stores in the 111-year-old Acorn Building, among Paso Robles' most recognizable landmarks.

Co-worker Marilyn Frost-Zafuto, 55, also was killed when the two-story masonry building fell.

Within hours, Vicky and Leroy Myrick stood on devastated Park Street amid cracked and crumbling 19th century brick buildings to confirm the death of their daughter, described as a kindly spirit involved in her high school drama troupe and jazz band who regularly attended church.

In the months before the quake, her mother said, Jennifer had grown more cautious, still shaken from a head-on car crash with a drunk driver over the summer. "She'd just completed rehabilitation, and if she'd known that building was unstable, there's no way she would have been in it at all."

That belief prompted the Myricks to respond to Schwarzenegger's condolence letter by asking him to support what they thought was a new idea: a law that would force the owners of about 25,000 old masonry buildings statewide to display placards warning that a major earthquake could make the structures unsafe.

Schwarzenegger's aides referred the parents to their local assemblyman, Simon Salinas (D-Salinas), who was surprised to discover that such a law already existed.

"The cities and the counties were supposed to tell the building owners to comply, but their was no teeth for enforcement in the law, no penalties," Salinas said. Only about 1% of such buildings carry the notice, a recent state survey found.

The Myricks changed their strategy. By late February, Salinas had introduced a bill to fine building owners if they failed to warn the public of seismic hazards.

After repeated amendments, Salinas thought he'd answered concerns about whether the law might prompt frivolous lawsuits. It passed the Senate 21 to 10 and the Assembly 52 to 27, with many Republicans still opposed, Salinas said.

"We spent a lot of time educating the governor's folks on this issue," he said. "We kept saying, 'Isn't it good policy to warn the public of hazards?' But up until the last minute, we weren't sure what was going to happen."

The Myricks, though delighted with the new law, are pressing a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Paso Robles, insisting the owners of the collapsed building should have posted an earthquake warning.

"Here it was already the law, and everyone just chose to ignore it, including the cities," Vicky Myrick said. "It was just another slap in the face."

Paso Robles officials said they had followed the original 1986 seismic safety law as far as it went: They identified all masonry buildings and set a timeline for reinforcement. And they notified building owners of the placard requirement.

"But it was never the responsibility of the city to enforce the law; it was the owners' responsibility," said Doug Monn, a building official for Paso Robles.

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