Fear of Arson Spurs Speedup in Plastering of Apartments

Times Staff Writer

Louis Tarantini is a Canoga Park plasterer who normally coats buildings with stucco to give them their best defense against rain and wind, but it was fear of arson that spurred the anxious speed with which he worked Thursday.

Just blocks away, demolition crews were tearing down an apartment building at 17806 Kinzie St. that fire officials say was twice set on fire by an arsonist in nine days.

Tarantini moved extra quickly to put an armor of coarse, gray cement on a nearly finished, 35-unit apartment project on Merridy Street just north of the Kinzie project.

"They want me here as soon as possible," said Tarantini, referring to the developers who had hired him. "It's like a crapshoot. No one knows if they're going to be the next to get hit. This is the first coat and it will automatically retard fire."

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Arson investigators are trying to determine whether the two fires at the Northridge complex that scared Tarantini's clients are linked to intentionally set blazes at six other apartment construction sites in Los Angeles--four of them in the San Fernando Valley--in the last 12 months.

The investigators said Thursday they had found traces of an arsonist's presence at the Northridge site in the form of two flammable-fluid containers and were examining them for fingerprints. They were also trading information with Glendale fire officials, who fought an arson at a residential construction in their city late Wednesday night.

The apartment development on which Tarantini's men put stucco with their power sprayers Thursday belonged to one of four developers he said had called him recently, as fear of arson spread through the construction industry. Each developer had the same request: Could Tarantini layer the protective plaster over their developments in the next few days, moving up appointments that he otherwise would not have been kept for weeks?

Normally, Tarantini would take three days at a job, to put on three coats of plaster. Under the circumstances, he says, he has a a job a day scheduled through the weekend. He said he would get one protective coat down on each building and then go back to put on the other layers.

3 Communities in 3 Days

"I've got one in Glendale, one Canoga Park, one in Northridge," he said.

Tarantini's job at the corner of Merridy and Zelzah was amid a patchwork of construction projects in the area that give the impression of a new neighborhood being built from scratch. There are four projects near the 114-unit. One that now lies virtually destroyed, a loss estimated at more than $2.6 million. At all four projects, builders expressed the fear that they might be next. And they all talked of taking unusually careful measures to make sure they aren't.

Gene Fox, a construction supervisor at the site of a 41-apartment construction project on the southern side of Lassen Avenue near Zelzah, said he is going to move a mobile trailer home onto the property, being developed by the Trapen Development Corp. of Beverly Hills, and live there.

"We're concerned, very concerned," said Fox, a big, bearded man. "There's going to be somebody here 24 hours a day."

Al Weizer, a project supervisor at a site being prepared for construction on Merridy, a block north of Trapen Development's project, said he was planning to bring in guards and guard dogs when the wooden part of his company's 43-apartment structure began to go up.

"It adds to the cost of putting up the building," said Weizer of the intensified security. "And the people who live here are going to pay for it. I bet our insurance rates go up, too.

"There's a lot of money involved in construction like this." He noted that the apartment complex that was being begun under his direction cost $6 million to $7 million.

"It's got me nervous," said W. S. Nelson, the Encino-based builder who hired Tarantini for Thursday's job. "We've got a guard and we didn't before."

Earl Glenn, project manager at another nearby construction site in an early stage of development, said security companies were trying to sell him their services. And he said he would probably give his business to one of them.

"Right now, I don't have anything that's going to burn," he said. "But you wonder, when there are three floors up, is somebody going to burn it down?"

A subject in which all the builders who were interviewed showed special interest was the fate of Capt. William Huff, 47, who fell three floors while fighting Wednesday's blaze on Kinzie Street. Huff was listed in serious but stable condition "with a little improvement" Thursday at Northridge Hospital Medical Center. He suffered a broken back, fractured ribs and a collapsed lung.

"When something like that happens, when somebody sets fire to a building and a man gets hurt . . .," said Gene Fox, shaking his head and not finishing the sentence.

"When somebody gets hurt is the worst part of it," said Louis Tarantini. "You think an arsonist thinks about that?"

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