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1 KILLED, 25 HURT AS ECHO PARK APARTMENT CAVES IN.

Byline: Troy Anderson Staff Writer

A 77-year-old, two-story apartment complex collapsed Friday morning in Echo Park, killing a man who had guided his wife and four children to safety but was crushed by debris as he re-entered to help others, officials said.

Twenty-five people also were injured when the mission-style building suddenly shifted about 8:25 a.m. and the upper floors collapsed into the floor below, officials said.

Investigators said they suspect the collapse was caused by structural failure and found no evidence of a natural gas explosion, which had been a suspected cause. Cracks were discovered in the foundation in 1998 but were repaired, inspectors said.

The identity of the dead man, whom neighbors described as a middle-aged auto mechanic, was not immediately available. He was crushed on the stairwell while his wife, children and others watched.

``He was taking his kids out of the building - and then it collapsed,'' recalled 16-year-old Luis Hernandez, who says he witnessed the man's futile attempt to return to the building.

Firefighters said the man lost his life while acting bravely.

``Considering what everyone saw this individual do, it was a very heroic thing,'' said Fire Department spokesman Jim Wells.

It was the first major collapse of a building in Los Angeles since the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, officials said.

``I heard what sounded like a rumbling, and then it kind of crescendoed into an explosion,'' said neighbor Tom Panages, 48.

``When I opened my door, it didn't even register. I was so taken aback and shocked by what I saw. The building collapsed on itself and slid 10 feet. People were screaming out the first-floor windows, crying and wailing.''

A total of 11 people were taken to hospitals for treatment of minor injuries, and 14 others were treated at the scene.

Investigators said an initial review suggested that a foundation wall collapsed at the 24-unit complex at 1601 W. Park Ave., causing the second floor to collapse onto the first floor. The building then slid into an adjacent apartment complex, said Los Angeles City Fire Department Chief William R. Bamattre.

Residents said the building has been in disrepair for several years. Now it will have to be demolished, officials said.

``I told the owner two years ago about problems and they never fixed anything,'' said resident Alfonso Lemus, 35. ``In the last year, the roof over my kitchen was falling down. He just put glue on it and that was all.''

The Associated Press reported that the owner is Nicholas DeLuca of TransCon Properties, who called the collapse ``devastating.''

``We need to find out if it was an act of earth movement or something else,'' he said in a telephone interview from Tucson, Ariz.

In 1998, the city discovered cracks in the foundation and issued an order to comply, said Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety spokesman Bill Steinbach

The owner did not fix the cracks and was fined $1,700, Steinbach said.

In May 1999, the city attorney held a hearing with the owner and outlined the options.

The owner hired an engineer to do a structural analysis and had the foundation cracks fixed by April.

``He fixed everything on that order,'' Steinbach said. ``The work was completed to the satisfaction of our department.''

Steinbach said he expects investigators to learn more about the cause when they help residents recover their possessions.

The collapse brought together neighbors who had never met and made heroes of some.

As people scrambled to exit through first-floor windows, an unidentified man entered to help residents, neighbors said.

Neighbor Terri Moreno said she saw a man with a reddish mustache covered in dust with cuts on his face and bruises on his stomach help pull people out of the building.

``He helped save children,'' said neighbor Juanito Carlos, 16.

``Appreciation is in order for almost anyone who would try to save someone's life,'' Fire Department spokesman Jim Wells said. ``There are sometimes heroes who come to light in something like this, and he's a hero.''

When the report of the building collapse first came in, authorities said residents reported hearing an explosion and said two or three people were still trapped in the building.

Bamattre said there is no evidence of a natural gas explosion, and search dogs and infrared cameras did not locate anybody else inside.

But firefighters, at the request of a frantic woman who left her Chihuahua inside, rescued the puppy named Toto.

``The only way out was through the window. My mom didn't want to leave the house without Toto. But when she couldn't find the dog, she was scared for her life,'' said Xochito Hernandez, 17.

Firefighters found the dog in the bathroom next to the toilet.

``The little dog was terrified,'' said fire Capt. Steve Ruda. ``When it comes to life, firefighters feel that animals mean something to somebody. We're glad we were able to reunite the dog with his family.''

The American Red Cross of Greater Los Angeles provided meals Friday at Angelus Temple to those left homeless. People who lived in the apartment house were offered cots and meals at the nearby Cathedral Center of St. Paul, 840 Echo Park Ave.

CAPTION(S):

2 photos, map

Photo:

(1 -- color) Fire officials work Friday to determine what caused the collapse of an Echo Park apartment building, killing one man and leaving many families homeless.

(2) A firefighter talks with victims of Friday morning's apartment building collapse in Echo Park.

Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer

Map: 77-year old apartment collapsed in 1600 block of Park Avenue 1 dead, 25 others injured
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 9, 2000
Words:931
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