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Families Piece Together Lives, Homes After Day of Terror

Times Staff Writers

The house that almost died in Whittier’s earthquake, only to be resuscitated by months of painstaking reconstruction, has finally begun to feel like a house again.

If there was a moment when the past receded and the future began to take shape, it happened on a day a few weeks ago when workmen put the heavy wooden front door back on the hinges of Dennis and Lynn Ward’s home on Beverly Drive.

It had been so long. The Wards were forced to abandon their 67-year-old, two-story home on the morning of last October’s quake when its charming but fragile hollow-brick frame collapsed. It was one of about 300 Whittier homes that were rendered unlivable.

At first the Wards figured they’d have to demolish it and start over. Then, after months of hand-wringing, they found an architect and construction crew willing literally to take the bottom floor apart, removing the bricks and replacing them with a standard wood frame.

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Watched Work Progress

The work started in April. The Wards, a pair of real estate brokers in their 40s, saw it every day as they lived with friends across the street. The house remained consumed by rubble. Their furniture remained packed away in storage. The months dragged by.

And then Lynn Ward saw her old door in place. There were other doors and window frames that had been salvaged, but this one was special.

“This is where everything happened,” she said recently, standing inside the doorway, remembering the 12 years her family had enjoyed life in the spacious, 3,000-square-foot home. “This is the door they all came through--our friends, our kids, the water polo team, the cheerleaders. When I saw that front door put back on, I thought if anything was saved, how neat it was that this was. I cried. I saw it from the car. I had to get out and go open the door to hear the click.”

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Propped in Place

She depressed the thumb latch, and the sound of the bolt echoed dully in the living room.

The Wards’ house, still awash in chunks of broken concrete and wood, was shored up for months with A-frame structures that held the first floor in place while the exterior was replaced. The job will use virtually every dollar of the $100,000 the Wards borrowed under the federal government’s disaster loan program.

Some of the work has been dicey. “One night just after I’d gotten the (brick) walls down we had some heavy winds and I had a nightmare that the wind load had knocked the house down,” said contractor Dan Freleaux.

Bad Luck

Chaos seemed to reign all around the Wards. A neighbor’s teen-ager forgot to set her car’s hand brake and the car careened into the Wards’ brick wall. Another neighbor was badly injured by a tree that fell on her as a result of a recent minor earthquake. Another was electrocuted a month ago while working on an aluminum ladder trying to repair quake damage. Within a two-block span of the Wards’ home, work continues on a half-dozen residences.

The Wards should be able to move back in sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“It has made us stronger,” Lynn Ward said. “And we see a unity with the neighborhood. I think when you go through a disaster you are in touch with people in ways you weren’t before.”

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Compared to a lot of earthquake victims, the Wards have been lucky. Throughout their ordeal, they have benefited from supportive friends and a sophisticated knowledge of how the world works.

On the other side of that world is the 19-member household headed by Juan Luna, the other family whose experiences have been periodically chronicled by The Times since the quake.

In the wake of the earthquake, the Luna household gradually dispersed from the 90-year-old rented white house on Bright Street, one block from Whittier’s Uptown business district. After about six months of living with three others from the original household, Luna now shares a rented home in Whittier with two other roommates.

This week, several members of the Luna household reunited for dinner and a little earthquake reminiscing. Luna and Patricia Ruiz laughed about the nights they spent beneath a makeshift tent in the front yard of their earthquake-torn home.

“That’s what will always remind us of the earthquake,” Luna said with a laugh.

Jobs Lost, Tension Created

The earthquake provoked a lot of tension among the household members, as groups of four and five people split off to find new places to live, mostly in Whittier. The quake also cost some household members their jobs. The restaurant where Patricia Ruiz worked closed because of earthquake damage, as did the factory that employed her husband.

“Those were very difficult days,” Ruiz said, shaking her head.

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For a time, some members of the original group were not on speaking terms. But in the last few months, friendships have been renewed.

“We see each other all the time walking around the neighborhood,” said Ruiz, who now lives in an apartment down the street from Luna. “It’s better now that we have more privacy.”

Luna’s dinner was interrupted by a telephone call from another of the household members, Maria Celia Fuentes, who called to say hello during a break in an English class required to complete the federal government’s amnesty program for immigrants. Fuentes, a longtime friend who lived with Luna for about six months after the earthquake, now has an apartment in another part of Whittier. Another household member called from Chicago a couple of nights ago, Luna said, to report his engagement.

“After everything,” Luna said, “we’ve found our close group again.”


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