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7,500 Evacuees Racked by Anxiety, Confusion, Boredom

Times Staff Writer

Like the noxious fumes drifting toward their neighborhoods, confusion and anxiety engulfed more than 7,500 Orange County inhabitants Monday as they were evacuated from their homes in the wake of an Anaheim chemical-warehouse fire.

For some, evacuation meant a hurried gathering of belongings and a car trip to a friend’s or relative’s house miles away. For others, it meant sudden flight from their homes and the unsettling prospect of an overnight stay in one of three emergency centers.

By mid-afternoon, Red Cross authorities were operating centers at Katella and Esperanza high schools and South Junior High School in Anaheim. Residents were given bedding, food and a sympathetic ear, but their anger and concern only seemed to increase as the day wore on.

Laurie Unamann, 31, for example, leaned against a brick wall and sobbed outside Esperanza High School, her third stop of the day after visiting two other emergency centers in search of her missing children, Matt, 2, and Stacy, 5.

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The Anaheim woman said her children were under the care of a day-care instructor Monday when Anaheim police ordered the sudden evacuation of the neighborhood. Anaheim police have issued an all-points bulletin to locate the two missing children and several others in the group.

The teacher “is surely taking care of them,” she said. “They’re probably having a ball but I can’t find them . . . I’ve been through hurricane evacuations, but this is worse.”

Across town, at Katella High School, Ever Blackwell leaned wearily against a red suitcase near the cafeteria, which has been turned into a makeshift sleeping area.

The Placentia woman, who is 8 1/2 months pregnant, said police drove through her neighborhood at 4 p.m. and told residents they had to leave because of the toxic chemical fire. Blackwell added that she and her 13-year-old son were waiting for her husband to drive down from Hollywood to pick them up.

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“I am praying that my husband will get me tonight. I just hope I won’t have to stay here all night,” she said. “I’d hate to go into labor among a group of strangers.”

Elsewhere, expressions ranged from irritation to boredom.

As he prepared to leave his Placentia home early in the afternoon, Gilbert Rodriguez, 63, said he had a feeling that his neighborhood would be evacuated.

“We kind of heard a rumor,” he said. But Rodriguez said he was surprised nonetheless when a police officer drove by his house and told him to leave. “He told us, ‘Time to evacuate. Get out! Get out!’ ”

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Rodriguez said he planned to drive to his daughter’s house in Santa Ana, but explained that he was more concerned about theft than chemical fumes.

“Things disappear when you’re (not) home,” he said, adding that his home had been burglarized twice already.

While most residents accepted the evacuation instructions without protest, a few expressed anger that the situation was not under control more than 36 hours after the fire broke out.

“They should have taken care of that a long time ago,” said Linda Garcia, adding that she and her 8-month-old daughter would not leave until her husband returned from work. “I’m going inside and closing my windows and staying,” she said.

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As fumes from the Anaheim chemical fire began drifting toward Placentia, police began evacuating the city at approximately 1 p.m. The affected area was bounded by Placentia Avenue to the west, Melrose Street to the east, Crowther Avenue to the north and the Placentia city limit to the south.

Police Lt. Ron Garrett said the Placentia sweep would take “a good three hours” to complete. He added that officers planned to make a door-to-door check Monday evening.

By 1:30 p.m., streets leading into the evacuation area were sealed off and police officers cruised the residential area, warning people to leave immediately. Residents were told they could either go to homes of families of friends or to a Red Cross evacuation center.

The Orange County Transit District set up a free shuttle service from McFadden Park, at the corner of Melrose and La Jolla streets, to take residents to Katella High School. Riders were allowed to bring pets on board, a relaxation of normal OCTD rules, for the two-mile ride.

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Acrid Odor Noted

As they began their exodus, many of the evacuees at Katella High and the two other centers complained of an acrid odor near their homes, similar to that of burning plastic. Some said they experienced headaches and dizziness, according to a Red Cross volunteer.

“I woke up and smelled the air . . . It smelled kind of funny, I had an upset stomach and a headache,” said 40 year-old Charlotte Scott of Placentia. She took her daughters and a 9-month-old granddaughter to the shelter on the OCTD shuttle, as her family was in Los Angeles.

Once she arrived, Scott and hundreds of other evacuees were registered at the door. Many of them formed long lines at the few pay phones outside each emergency center, hoping to contact friends or relatives and get rides out of the area.

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To those who had no choice but to stay, Red Cross officials offered toiletry kits, food and cots to sleep on.

As the emergency centers filled up with more people throughout the day, some tried to make the best of a bad situation. A crowd of 20 or more evacuees at Esperanza High, for example, were entertained by Carl Sell, 37, of Placentia, who played the harmonica.

Philosophical Attitude

Sell, who evacuated his home along with four children, his wife, mother-in law and two cockatoos, was philosophical, saying, “I’ve got my family here and that’s what matters. If the house goes, it goes.”

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Others were less upbeat.

Craig Haslebacher, a trainee with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department who recently moved to the area from Oregon, said he had spent Saturday and Sunday nights at the Katella High center, adding: “It’s starting to get old.”

Haslebacher, 31, was told Monday that he couldn’t return to the motel where he was staying until Tuesday morning at the earliest, and complained, “There’s nothing you can do. You’re stuck.”

The sheer boredom of waiting around also irritated Les Champion of Anaheim, who was spending his third night at Katella High.

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Asked what he had done Monday, Champion replied, “Sit, that’s all, and eat. We wonder when we’re going to go home. It’s an ordeal, this is.”

Did he expect to go home soon?

“We’re keeping fingers our crossed.”

Times staff writers Mark Pinsky, Shirish Date and Karen Gallegos contributed to this story.

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