Autopsy of A Tragedy

Norma Meyer
The San Diego Union Tribune - May 8, 1994

The stench of decay was almost unbearable. Flies buzzed everywhere. Large black letters denoting a time and "DB"--for dead body--were spray-painted on crumbling stucco walls.

Hearts pounding, sisters Marcee Murray and Susan Buck climbed over heaps of earthquake rubble and peered down a sawed-out section of a second-floor unit in the Northridge Meadows apartments. Pinned below was their mother's bed, still covered with her rose flowered comforter, a brown moccasin slipper nearby, in a first-floor home now 2 feet tall.

"They said she was sleeping," Buck said, her teary eyes riveted on the hole that rescuers had cut to remove the body of Bea Reskin, 71, nearly four months ago.

As a wrecking ball hovers in the deathtrap complex's final days, a handful of former tenants and relatives of the dead--donning hard hats, signing legal waivers and accompanied by their lawyer--have for the first time been allowed into buildings still deemed unsafe.

Simultaneously, in what attorneys call an unprecedented postmortem, the ravaged resort-style compound is being pulled apart floor by floor, nail by nail, to see why the first story pancaked, killing 16 people. The deaths were the largest concentration of fatalities in the 6.8-magnitude temblor of Jan. 17.

A judge ordered a controlled demolition so that the sued owner and builder, as well as experts for lawyers representing tenants and relatives, could gather what are likely to be among the most scrutinized pieces of evidence in California history. Sometime after Thursday, bulldozers will raze what were once three tan, three-story structures.

Hundreds of specimens--as small as a tack and as large as a 20-by-40-foot piece of exterior stucco--are being tagged, marked and photographed. The items, which also will be available to outsiders for quake-safety studies, will be kept in a locked storage area at the Santa Monica offices of Joel Castro, who represents several families and is the lead attorney for millions of dollars in liability lawsuits.

He is the one who brought the traumatized back to the scene.

"The are drawn to this place. They have to live through this experience," Castro said.

Steve Langdon flew down from his new home in Reno to walk through what had been a picture-postcard 163-unit complex, with lush landscaping, tennis courts, waterfalls, a pool and Jacuzzi sewing room and weight room. Langdon, 45, was trapped in his first-floor apartment face down in a mattress, a wall and dresser atop him for five hours. He still is recovering from a crushed collarbone and collapsed lung.

"I don't even know if I want to go in," he said nervously Thursday, before going through a guarded chain-link fence, turning a corner and beholding what looked like a bombed-out city. A putrefying smell hit his nostrils--a mix of dead animals, spoiled food and leaking sewage pipes.

Second- and third-floor apartment listed every which way, some with bedsheets dangling after panicky escapes. First-floor apartments were crawl spaces. Rats and maggots infested the remnants of shattered lives--Pop Tarts, a Little Tykes play kitchen, a Biology 101 exam.

The quake's violence had flung out a pair of women's black high-heeled boots, a red sofa pillow and a coffee-table book titled "National Parks" from Unit 123, where Darla Rae Enos, 43, died. Nearby, a child's doll, dressed in a blue and white pinafore, eerily lay face down on an outdoor metal staircase that was wrenched from the ground and twisted skyward.

The desperate holes from rescuers were scattered throughout units bathed in shards of exploded glass. From one gap poked the multicolored, striped sheets on the bed of Sharon Englar, 58, and her husband, Phil, 62. The couple had been found dead, clutching each other. "Two bodies" was spray-painted on the wall.

Syd Dalven, 75, also had been pinned underneath part of her ceiling before she was pulled out by a tenant's guest. Now, she sat outside in a patio chair, near scattered mah-jongg tiles and busted pottery, in what had been her living room until the quake pushed the building back 8 feet. Her ceiling and kitchen-light fixture were smashed into a dishwasher that contained broken plates.

Upon seeing the daughters of Reskin, who had been her best friend, Dalven collapsed in sobs. "Look what happened to us. Look what we lost," she cried in their arms.

Langdon walked around speechless.

"It's amazing only 16 people died," he finally said.

As the gut-wrenching drama played out, teams of engineers, seismic specialists, contractors and geologists conducted their antiseptic autopsy. In addition to the legal parties, there is intense governmental and academic interest in what caused the collapse of the 23-year-old wood-frame complex, a structure so common to California and thought to be earthquake sturdy.

Castro said his experts already have noted defects. Seismic-resisting shear walls were missing in some places or not properly fastened to the roof and floors, he said. Castro claims underground tuck-in parking was 10 feet deeper than the building code allowed and that smaller, weaker nails were substituted for what was in the plan.