Demolition of Complex Worries Veteran Lawyers

B.J. Palermo
Daily Journal - April 22, 1994

The Impending demolition of the Northridge Meadows apartments has struck dread into the hearts of seasoned lawyers who have never before conducted such a review of evidence.

In their case against the apartments' owners and builder, attorneys for the survivors will accompany their experts to the ruins May 2 to begin taking apart the collapsed first floor - piece by piece.

"I am very, very worried about that controlled demolition, really worried about it. This is the most dangerous job I have ever worked on. We could get killed, " said Santa Monica attorney Joel B. Castro.

The lawyers believe removing sections of the collapsed first story will help them prove Northridge Meadows did not meet the city's building code when it was built in 1971.

Reporters and photographers from various news agencies have made arrangements to observe the operation, which is expected to take a week to 10 days. National Geographic magazine will photograph the procedure.

"Even though we will have paramedics and search-and-rescue guys on standby, the press has actually made reservations to go in the building and crawl in those holes," said Castro, the lead plaintiffs' lawyer. "There could be another earthquake and the whole structure could collapse. And the property is full of rats, flies and maggots; everybody had meat in their refrigerators. Our interest is in getting the evidence and getting out of there as soon as we can."

Although attorneys and hired experts have been documenting areas of the complex of weeks, the collapsed first story has been entered only by the fire department personnel who removed the dead by drilling holes through he floors of second-story apartments. The belongings of former tenants remain as they were when the magnitude 6.8 quake Jan. 17 rendered Northridge Meadows uninhabitable and unable to enter.

Castro had hoped for a safer procedure in which the second and third stories would be removed before workers entered the first-floor apartments that were crushed in the disaster. But the cost to do that was $100,000.

The May 2 autopsy, at an estimated cost of $50,000, will require inspectors to enter the unstable buildings not knowing what will happen when they begin to remove parts of walls, flooring and other structural elements.

"We are not in the business of risking our lives," Castro said. "But the unique thing about Northridge Meadows is it will be demolished, and all the evidence will be gone."

Plaintiffs' lawyers obtained a temporary injunction to block the city's wrecking ball until they could remove their samples. Although the Federal Emergency management Agency will pay for the final razing, the federal agency refused to finance the gathering of evidence for the court case.

Superior Court Judge William A. MacLaughlin delayed the demolition to give all former tenants and prospective defendants and their lawyers a chance to participate.

Plaintiff's attorney Bruce A. Broillet called the procedure "a classic example of the good things the system of justice does. What will sift out of this controlled demolition is a lot of data about what works and what doesn't" in construction methods, he said. " The system of justice, particularly the plaintiffs' side, is under constant attack as being a drag on the economy. But if it wasn't for the fact that people can go out and retain lawyers, we would not know what happened" at Northridge Meadows.