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Heat blamed in the deaths of at least 16

The Southland victims span a wide age range. Crews work to end outages that in some cases have lasted 3 days.

September 05, 2007|Francisco Vara-Orta, Ari B. Bloomekatz and David Pierson | Times Staff Writers

Southern California's heat wave is suspected in the deaths of at least 16 people, officials said Monday as utilities struggled to fix power transformers overloaded by eight days of extreme weather that is expected to finally cool today.

The deaths included an elderly couple in Valley Village who had told neighbors they were trying to keep their air conditioner off to save money, a 45-year-old woman separated from two friends after their car crashed in the desert and a Pasadena woman in her 80s whose body was discovered in her apartment, where the temperature was 115 degrees.

Hundreds of utility crews spent Monday trying to restore power to about 64,000 households, some of which have been without electricity for three days.

"We felt like we were being tortured," said Matthew Lorenzen, 28, whose Los Feliz home lost power several times Saturday, Sunday and Monday. "It was just horrible -- lots of still, hot nights."

The National Weather Service said those nights will be cooling, at least a little, beginning today as the heat wave ebbs.

Temperatures, which reached the upper 90s on Tuesday in places like Woodland Hills and Van Nuys, were expected to drop 5 to 10 degrees today with the arrival of a low-pressure front, said Stuart Seto, a weather specialist for the National Weather Service. Temperatures will continue to fall gradually through the rest of the week.

Twelve of the deaths reported occurred across a wide section of Los Angeles County, including the San Fernando Valley, the Fairfax district and downtown L.A. Three victims were found in San Bernardino County and one in Riverside County.

The fatalities come a year after another major heat wave killed more than 140 people statewide -- mostly in Central and Northern California. In the wake of those deaths, state officials launched an in-depth look at how to prevent such loss of life this summer.

They found that most of the victims were elderly, poor and frail -- and that early assessments significantly undercounted the number of people who succumbed to the heat. Many of the victims died several days into the heat wave and either didn't have air conditioners in their living quarters or for some reason didn't use them.

But this summer, officials said the death toll included people of many ages -- some elderly but also a 26-year-old man riding his dirt bike, a metal scavenger in his 30s and a woman in her 40s. Officials also warn that the toll could rise as more autopsies are completed this week.

The Valley Village couple -- Menahen "Max" Lugassi , 82, and Dolores "Sara" Del Valle, 87 -- were discovered in their apartment in the 5100 block of Laurel Canyon Boulevard on Sunday at 4:30 p.m, said coroner's spokesman Capt. Ed Winter.

Neighbors remembered the couple as "inseparable," with Del Valle caring for Lugassi as his health deteriorated over the last few months after he suffered a stroke last year.

"He couldn't walk at all," said Sheila Friedman, 65, the apartment complex manager, who knew the couple for 20 years. "His wife centered her life around his. You'd always see her pushing him in his wheelchair around the complex. She slept by his side every night when he was at the hospital for a week after his stroke."

Lugassi's nephew visited the couple over the weekend and was upset that his uncle refused to switch on the air-conditioner. Keeping it off, the couple said, saved them about $50 over the summer months, Friedman said.

"My cleaning lady recently came down to complain that it was too hot in there to work," she added. "I couldn't force them to turn it. . . . It's just horrible. It could have been prevented."

About the same time Sunday in Pasadena, 85-year-old Dorothy McGlothan was discovered dead by her daughter.

McGlothan had lived in her apartment for almost 40 years without air conditioning, relatives said. When paramedics arrived, the temperature in her apartment was 115 degrees, Winter said.

"She said all she needed was a fan," said Dedrick Hayes, 33, one of McGlothan's grandchildren. "My grandmother didn't like anyone intruding in her life. She was very independent, had been a widow for like 25 years and was a bit stubborn about listening to us."

Survived by four children, 10 grandchildren and 33 great-grandchildren, McGlothan "held the family together, keeping tabs on all of us spread all over the country. . . . She was in good health and had been able to stand the heat all these years, so it's a shock this has happened," Hayes said.

Michael Visser was riding his dirt bike Saturday afternoon in Texas Canyon near Saugus when he got separated from friends. Janelle Dickinson, Visser's aunt, said that his bike then broke down and that he appeared to have pushed it to some nearby shade.

The friends found him an hour later, unconscious beneath a tree. Dickinson said Visser, a 26-year-old Winnetka carpenter who went dirt biking "every chance he got," appears to have died of heat stroke.

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