Court Makes Inspection of Disaster Site

Northridge Meadows: Judge, attorneys view apartments where 16 died in quake.
The visit is part of the first wrongful death suit.

Ann W. O'Neill
Los Angeles Times - March 24, 1994

The judge, who ultimately must decide whether this disaster was an act of God or man, or some combination of the two, was but the latest of thousands of people who have been drawn to the collapsed building.

The "looky-loos," as the locals call them, "come day and night," said Sgt. Ed Wheelis of the Los Angeles Police Department's Devonshire station. "On weekends, there's a big crowd out there."

The tourists, many from other countries, snap photos, crown sidewalks and ring up profits for nearby restaurants. When last Sunday's 5.3 aftershock his, for example, it sent 30 people running from King's Mongolian Bar-B-Q. at the strip shopping center next door.

"I've seen people pose their kids in front of the place like they're at Disneyland. It's morbid," said Allen Tharpe, a lawyer for owner Shashikant Jogani.

Police report there have been numerous fender-benders as the curious, riveted by the sight, ram into cars of other rubber-neckers.

Wednesday's traffic was typical. Brakes and tires squealed intermittently.

A woman who gave her name as Deborah Deadman of Canoga Park said she'd brought visitors to see the damage. "The hair stands up on the back of your neck, just knowing what those people went through," she said.

"Why did this building get it so hard when other ones nearby didn't?" asked her friend, Sharon Williams of Redding.

That question cuts to the heart of the lawsuit, and the investigations by teams of engineers.

MacLaughlin, a San Fernando Superior Court judge, has been assigned the Northridge Meadows litigation.

Other lawsuits are expected to be filed. The families of 10 of the 16 people who died have retained lawyers.

The lawyers allege that owners, builders and architects of the 1972 building were negligent. Attorneys for owner Jogani and builder Brian Heller say Northridge Meadows was built to code and that the collapse was caused by an "act of God"--the 6.8 magnitude quake.

On Wednesday, Northridge Meadows served a dual purpose--as Exhibit A in the coming legal battles and as the courtroom for, literally, an open-air hearing about how demolition should proceed.

On his tour, MacLaughlin and the others learned where people died, where the more dramatic rescues occurred and where the building pancaked onto first-floor apartments and tuck-in parking garages.

Each apartment they passed seemed to be a gaping cave of wreckage. Dried Christmas trees, lights and ornaments still decorated some balconies.

After walking through the courtyard, two of the lawyers and the judge ventured inside the northwest corner of the building, which pulled away from the rest of the building and leaned precariously against a concrete retaining wall.

"If you feel the ground start to move, please run," advised Robert M. Freedman, one of owner Jogani's lawyers.

On Jan. 17, the building had lurched 12 feet west and 8 feet down. A section of a rear parking structure also collapsed, leaving one car atop another in a twisted "T", right next to a "No Parking" sign.

"How would you like to be here at 4:30 in the morning with no lights, no shoes and people all over screaming, 'Pull me out! Pull me out!'" said Joel B. Castro, the Santa Monica lawyer who represents the families of Bea Reskin and Ann Cerone, who died in their beds, trapped under the top two floors.