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7 Months After Redondo Accident, Victims Still Suffer

Times Staff Writer

Kevin and Cindy Adair had been married just three months when their lives fell out from under them.

They were among the 10 people standing on three ventilation gratings on a Redondo Beach parking garage when the gratings collapsed last January. One man was killed in the 22-foot plunge to the concrete floor below. Nine others were injured.

Nearly seven months after the accident, most of the victims are still undergoing medical treatment, and some said they still are trying to deal with the nightmare emotionally. Two have not returned to their jobs.

All but one have filed claims against the city, which owns the garage. The city has rejected the claims, and most victims said they are planning to file lawsuits.

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Investigation Complete

Attorney Douglas C. Purdy, who is representing Redondo Beach, said the city has completed its investigation of the accident, but he would not discuss why the grates collapsed. He said the city will probably file lawsuits against any companies involved with the design and manufacture of the grates and garage that could be held liable for the accident.

The Adairs, like most of the victims, had been among the more than 10,000 runners who competed in a 10-kilometer race held annually on Super Bowl Sunday. They were in the park-like plaza on the roof of the garage, built against a hillside, to take part in the party and awards ceremony held after the race. The party is usually held at the nearby Seaside Lagoon, but that area had been damaged by a storm two weeks earlier.

The couple, who live in Carlsbad in San Diego County, said they remember falling for what seemed like a long time. “When I landed,” Cindy said, “it was like my feet just exploded.”

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Cindy, 29, said that she didn’t realize that her husband was hurt, too, until someone told her in the ambulance. “And then I really freaked out.”

Kevin recalls seeing his wife after the fall; he especially remembers her bloodied feet. He tried to help her, but he was in shock and had trouble breathing. His right lung had collapsed and required surgery.

Kevin also sprained his feet and his body was covered with bruises. His shoulder, wrist and several ribs were broken, although several of the fractures were not discovered until after he was released from the hospital a week later--on his 30th birthday.

Both of Cindy’s heels were shattered and her back was broken. She has had surgery three times so far--twice on her back and “once on my heels when they put them back together.” Another operation is planned for early next year to remove the rods in her back.

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Cindy was hospitalized for a month after the accident and couldn’t walk for about four months.

‘Will Never Run Again’

“It’s extremely painful when I walk,” said Cindy, who ran 5 to 10 miles a day before the accident and competed in races for the past five years. “I was a good runner. Now they tell me I will never run again, which is a real sad thought.”

She is hoping the doctors are wrong, but for now the farthest she can manage to walk is about one block, she said. For longer ventures, she must use a wheelchair.

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Cindy, who is a purchasing manager for a company in San Marcos, has not returned to work. Her doctors estimate that it will take another year for her to recover, and that she will probably always have pain in her heels.

“Sometimes,” Kevin said, “I wish me and my wife could switch roles, and I would have taken the brunt of the fall. I talked her into running (in the race).”

Kevin, a wine salesman, returned to work in late April. At first he could not lift cases of wine, but he has regained much of his strength. He still goes to a chiropractor once a week.

Before the accident, Kevin and Cindy said, they were physically active and danced, ran and worked out regularly. Since they were forced to quit, each has gained about 20 pounds.

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“The hardest thing on us is just mental,” Kevin said. Both said the accident has brought them closer, even though it has put a strain on their young marriage. Cindy sees a psychiatrist, and Kevin sees a counselor. “It’s helping a lot,” Cindy said.

Both have nightmares about the accident and both now fear heights. The accident also has caused financial problems, the Adairs said. Although they have medical insurance, they had to pay for some hospital equipment needed at home. They have had to borrow money, Cindy said.

They are planning to file lawsuits, but Cindy said: “There is no amount of money that they could pay me that would make it worth it. . . . I’d rather have my health.”

Another married couple hurt in the accident, Jim Chen and Jackie Szymanek of Palos Verdes Estates, said they are in constant pain.

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“My whole life--the way I think about things--has changed,” said Chen, who was the most seriously injured of the survivors.

He said he is considering selling his car repair business in Redondo Beach because he cannot handle stress anymore. The couple had not run in the race but had volunteered to hand out refreshments.

They say they don’t remember the accident. They learned through biofeedback therapy not to try.

Chen, 40, was told that he almost died several times.

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“The doctor at Harbor General said they got me in the last seat of the last lifeboat, as a joke, later on,” said Chen, who suffered a collapsed right lung, a bruised heart, 10 broken ribs, a dislocated and fractured collarbone and an injured left leg.

Chen was given 27 pints of blood after the accident. He worries that he might have contracted AIDS from the transfusions.

Part of Chen’s right lung was removed and exploratory surgery was done on his stomach. The stomach incision later became infected and had to be partly reopened. Because he was in such critical condition, the doctors did not mend all of his ribs.

He may have another operation later to repair the fractures, which are still painful. The muscles in his chest and back were cut during surgery and also have not healed. Chen said he worries that what “might be a minor accident to someone else might be fatal to me.”

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Chen spent about three weeks in one hospital while his wife recuperated in another hospital for nearly two weeks.

After they got home, Chen was bedridden for 1 1/2 months and Szymanek needed a wheelchair for about two weeks.

Szymanek, 45, suffered head trauma, three broken vertebrae, several cracked ribs and numerous fractures to her left arm, wrist, ankle and foot. She had difficulty focusing her eyes.

She went for physical therapy for six months, and now continues it at home. She was in so much pain when therapy began, her husband said, “you could hardly touch her without her screaming and scaring the hell out of everyone in the building.”

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Szymanek, who had orthopedic and neurological surgery and still wears a brace around her torso, does not like to discuss her injuries.

Szymanek is unsure whether she will ever be able to return to her job as a flight attendant. “It bothered me a lot this year, because I’m not used to being housebound and sitting around all the time,” she said.

Chen returned to his business part time in May and gradually increased his hours to full time.

The couple are hoping that they will be able to resume their active life styles someday. Both like to water-ski and snow ski, and Chen likes to ride dirt bikes and fish.

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Because the couple may be recuperating a long time, they are considering moving to Alaska, where they own a home and a fishing lodge near Juneau.

Robert Bode, 36, of Tujunga, was killed in the accident. He was impaled on a grate that landed perpendicular to the floor.

Bode’s girlfriend, Sharon Feldman of Redondo Beach, was injured in the accident. Still in shock from her own injuries, she said she was taken by police the night of the accident to identify Bode’s body.

“They put me in a wheelchair and rolled me into his room,” she said. “I just broke down. . . . I couldn’t even talk about it.”

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Feldman, 33, suffered a concussion; she was X-rayed and released from the hospital that night. Feldman also injured her chest and left leg and knee. She said her chest hurt so much for two months that she had trouble breathing and sleeping.

“I didn’t want to sleep, because I was afraid I would die,” she said.

She could not use stairs for a couple of months. She said that her doctors told her that she may need an operation, but that her knee, which still hurts, will never heal completely.

Feldman said the hardest part of her recovery has been emotional. While she had known Bode only about six months, she said they had become “instant friends” and she misses him every day.

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Bode, described by those who knew him as being in top physical condition, had just finished running in the race. Feldman met him at the finish line.

The last thing she remembers is following Bode through a crowd. They were not in line for beer, as many on the grate were; she did not even she realize they were on a grate.

Feldman said she is comforted by her belief that Bode didn’t suffer before he died. And because he probably was the first one to land, the other victims may have been spared similar deaths, she said.

She said she has buried herself in her job and in volunteer work for the Boy Scouts. It was through Boy Scout volunteering that she met Bode, who was an executive of the organization’s Los Angeles Area Council.

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Bode’s parents, Edwin and Nubia Bode, filed a $2.5-million claim against the city. Feldman also filed a claim for an unspecified amount and is planning a lawsuit against the city and the firms involved in the design, engineering and manufacture of the grates and the garage, said her attorney, Donald S. Forrester.

“Money does not bring a person back. It’s no big deal to me,” Feldman said. “I just feel if it wasn’t me having all this pain, it would have been someone else. . . . They need to pay their dues so it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

Hector Gutierrez-Medina was training to run in the Los Angeles Marathon before the accident. Nearly seven months later, he has trouble walking, let alone running.

He ran the Redondo Beach 10-K in about 40 minutes, which, he said, “is a good time for me.” After the race, he said, he was standing on the ventilation grates because the line for beer ran across it.

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He said he was one of the last people to fall and managed to turn his body so he could break the plunge with his hands. He remembers hearing victims screaming on their way down.

Gutierrez, 37, of Inglewood broke his right hip and now his right leg is permanently three-eighths of an inch shorter than the left. A metal plate and six screws were placed in his hip and will have to be removed by the end of the year.

He also injured his thigh and ankle and sprained his right shoulder. He was hospitalized for two weeks and on crutches for five months. He now limps, uses a cane and wears a shoe lift. His leg still hurts, he said.

Gutierrez, a self-employed Spanish-language interpreter for the courts, did not return to work for more than three months. He said he has also had financial problems because of the accident.

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Dennis Heitkamp is trying to forget about the accident, but the wires in his jaw keep reminding him.

The jaw was broken in half a dozen places. Heitkamp lost five teeth and his leg was badly cut. He had an operation on his jaw, which was wired shut for six weeks. He was released from the hospital within a few days but spent two weeks on crutches.

His knee still hurts and may need surgery. His doctor won’t decide that for another two months, after he has had physical therapy.

Parts of the left side of his face and his lips are still numb. He said his doctor told him that he probably will never get all the feeling back.

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Kissing, he said, “doesn’t feel like it used to.”

Heitkamp, 36, who lives in Redondo Beach and works as a software engineer for Hughes Aircraft Co., returned to his job three weeks after the accident.

He had run 3 to 6 miles every other day before the accident, but now cannot run, ride a bike or even use stairs. “I’m having trouble finding ways to exercise,” he said. “I’d like to be able to do something.”

Steven Spaller was the only person who walked away from the fall.

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Spaller, 27, said he remembers everything--standing in line to get a beer, thinking it strange that the line crossed the ventilation grates, hearing someone refuse to stand on the grates for fear that they would collapse. He and others made fun of her fears, Spaller recalled.

And he remembers the fall as if it were in slow motion, he said. He believes he was the last person to land because his injuries were the least serious--four cracked ribs and extremely sore muscles.

He got up and saw “limbs going ways I don’t think God ever meant them to.” He said he was “completely in shock. I ran for help.”

After directing people to the other victims, Spaller went back to the top level and found his sister and brother-in-law, who had been standing on grass a couple of feet from him when the grates collapsed.

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“I was freaking out, and I just wanted them to take me home,” he said. By the time they got to the car, the shock was wearing off, the pain was increasing, and he could not stand up straight.

Spaller, who had come from Alexandria, Va., to run in the race and visit his sister in Redondo Beach, took some pain pills and slept the rest of the day. He woke up in time to catch a late flight home.

The next day, he called Redondo Beach police to let them know he was one of the people who fell. He also went to a doctor, who diagnosed his injuries and told him that “Time was the only thing that was going to correct it.”

Spaller, an avid skier who also enjoys running, tennis and lacrosse, said his pain prevented him from doing any physical activities except walking for the next four months.

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Under California law, victims can file a lawsuit against a city only after the city rejects a claim, which must be filed within six months of when the injury occured. Spaller, who does not have an attorney and said he was not aware of the law, is the only victim who did not file a claim against the city by the deadline.

Last week, his insurance company told him to seek reimbursement for his medical expenses--which amounted to a few hundred dollars--from the city. He said he is exploring whether it is too late.

In any case, he said, “I thank my lucky stars I walked away.”

John LaFrano of Fullerton is the only victim who declined to be interviewed. “There’s been a lot of problems,” he said, “but I feel there’s going to be a court case, and I don’t think it’s appropriate to talk about it.”

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He has filed claims against the city for $2 million. He fractured his left upper arm; injured his left knee, which required surgery; injured his nervous system, and received severe cuts and bruises, according to his claims.

During recent interviews, most of those injured in the fall asked about the other victims. They have not spoken to each other.

“I think of them and their families and the family of the man who lost his life,” Szymanek said. “We shouldn’t take life for granted.”


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