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Fear of Death Haunts Some Workers : Stress of Survival Lingers Months After Tower Fire

Times Staff Writer

Almost five months after it burned itself a place in history, the First Interstate Tower is open again. Millions were spent to clean every chair, vacuum every floppy disk, replace every smoke-scented ceiling tile and laboratory-test every single bolt and beam for strength. The building, in short, is now safe. And sound.

Not so the people who found themselves trapped in the chimney-shaped building downtown on the night of May 4.

Some find their days filled with sudden tears, and their nights with wracking dreams that, puzzlingly, don’t even always involve fire. They scream for no reason at the children they feared they would never see again. They see the open arms of their husbands and wives, and back away.

While it is said of death that it is the great leveler, the near-death experience that was the fire discriminated meticulously. It slapped the hearty on the back, and hit the vulnerable behind the knees.

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Two young First Interstate financial experts whose cool-headed analytical skills kept them alive for five hours awoke in the hospital to calls from bank executives and full salaries during their recuperation. Movie contracts followed.

Most of the survivors, however, were janitors, immigrants holding onto the hem of the American dream with $6-an-hour union jobs. For them, there were no movie offers or executive visits, only sporadic workers’ compensation checks, worries about rent and disquieting trips to unfamiliar psychologists. But that is the observation of an outsider.

Those who faced death that night will tell you that what they have had to face since then is nothing more--and nothing less--than themselves.

“I look at myself now and see a different person,” said janitor Jose Luis Garcia, 49. “I feel like a passenger on the train of the life of another.”

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Radmila Radich, 40, was a hero during the fire. She got a certificate from Mayor Tom Bradley commending her for her bravery. Barely able to breathe through the smoke, the Yugoslavian immigrant had half-dragged, half-inspired co-worker Jose Luis Garcia down 13 floors to safety.

“That night I was so strong, nothing would have been heavy for me because I was fighting for life,” she said at her home in Atwater, where she spends her days on disability.

She stopped, shook her head, and tears spilled out of her eyes, dropping whole onto the backs of her hands.

“Now, I am not strong,” she said. “I don’t remember strong . . . what is strong?”

At Work a Decade

Radich was one of 44 crew members of the Commercial Building Maintenance Co. on duty when the fire broke out shortly before 10:30 p.m.

The crew formed two groups: the Yugoslavians, mostly women like Radich who would sit at one table during breaks and speak in Croatian; and the Latin Americans, men and women who would sit at another and speak in Spanish.

But on the night of the fire, fate would team up Radich and Garcia on the 19th floor, seven stories above where the fire started.

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Unable to breathe in the smoky stairwells, the two took an elevator down. It opened on 13. There, trapped in the smoke-filled vestibule that was the very eye of the fire, both expected to die.

“I was lying by the elevator, trying to breathe--oooosh, oooosh--the air that came up through the crack, and it was the saddest moment of my life,” Garcia said. “Then I heard her call me. I don’t even know how she did it, but she found the strength to pull me up with one big pull.” They scrambled into the stairwell, and after two or three floors of hellish smoke, found themselves below the fire.

To Garcia, Radich is the woman who saved his life. To Radich, Garcia is the only human link in the chain that connects her new, fragile self to the old, seemingly irretrievable strong one.

“Only Jose knows what we went through,” she said. “He is the only one that can really understand. . . . I like to talk to him.”

But they don’t speak the same language.

When they met for the first time after the fire at a union meeting, the two survivors spoke to each other in an unsatisfying mixture of Spanish and English.

“I asked her, ‘Como esta, my friend?’ ” Garcia said. “She said she felt bad, very bad, and I could see that she did. ‘Como esta usted, mi amigo? ' she asked me.

“ ‘The same,’ I said.”

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Like many caught in the fire, they have suffered agonizing headaches, depression and a bewildering loss of purposefulness that psychologists call post traumatic stress syndrome. Experienced by, among others, combat veterans, torture victims and victims of violent crimes, it strikes when the trauma ends and, it would seem, life should be savored anew.

His Hardest Trial

“Sometimes I tell my wife I wish I had died there in that fire,” he said. “It is the hardest thing I have done in my life, this surviving.”

Garcia no longer fishes with his brother, no longer plays soccer. Not a day passes that he does not thank God for being alive to see his six children. But not a day passes, either, when one of them doesn’t ask, “What’s wrong, Papa?”

“I feel corralled by my own fears,” he said. “Truthfully, sometimes I think I’m crazy. I go looking for something and . . . I say, ‘Look, my daughter, I have it in my hand.’ ”

Although the two cannot communicate such subtleties to each other, Radich feels as if she, too, is living the life of a stranger. A life without joy, a life drained of color.

“When we got out of that building that night, I fell to my knees and said, ‘Thank God I’m alive!’ ” she said. Then, she adds: “That was the last joy I felt.”

When she was released from the hospital a few days later and the smoke-dry pain in her throat finally eased, Radich began to cry. She cried for two days.

Can’t Stand to Cook

She found she could not cook because she could not stand the smell of steaming food. Perversely, she could not stop smoking.

Although she forces herself to make dinners for her family now, she is still afraid of the dark, afraid of being alone and afraid of going to sleep because of the nightmares she knows await her.

“They’re always the same,” she said. “I dream about the fire, and I JUMP from the bed and the smoke is choking me and I’m running and screaming for help.”

The old Radmila was the sort of person who chose hobbies that required concentration: needlework, puzzles, reading. The new Radmila cannot sit still. An unfinished petit point tapestry is fading in a sunny corner of her living room.

Help From Psychiatrists

She goes to a psychiatrist two or three times a week. Garcia goes twice a month. The psychiatrists tell them victims of such post-trauma depressions usually get better--in time.

For all Radich and Garcia have in common, however, they say there is a significant difference. Garcia has a wife and children who sympathize with his problems.

“Our names are very common--Jose and Maria Garcia--and my wife is very simple,” he said. “But she won’t let me stay depressed. ‘Have some more frijolitos,’ she will say, ‘Don’t you know we have a powerful God who is good and won’t abandon us?’ ”

Radich, by contrast, feels alone in her own home.

“My family seems like strangers,” she said. “My husband doesn’t like how I’m acting. Neither do my children. . . . they don’t understand. They just say, ‘Well, you’re OK, aren’t you? You didn’t get burned or anything, right? So, just forget the fire.’ ”

She doesn’t know how.

Garcia hopes to return to work, to First Interstate if possible. To a smaller building, if his fears cannot be surmounted.

Radich cannot imagine going back to the building that had betrayed her.

“I can never go back there,” she said. “I thought I was going to die there. I won’t trust that building ever again. I pulled myself from death once. I don’t know if I can do that again.”

Like Radich and Garcia, Melinda Skaar, 29, a financial analyst, and Stephen Oksas, 31, a bank vice president, found their destinies paired that night. But for Skaar and Oksas, the fire was an obstacle to overcome, and surviving it, living proof that what doesn’t kill you can be a learning experience.

Working late that night, they found themselves trapped by smoke on the 37th floor. From the outset, they discussed their options as they might discuss business proposals.

They notified authorities of their location before their phone went dead, signaled the helicopter pilot hovering outside their window and kept themselves alive for five hours by rationing breaths from cupboards and converting ordinary office equipment to life-saving aids. They were the last to be brought out alive, heroes in a unique Yuppie survival story.

Point of Curiosity

Unlike those who still are afraid to enter the building, both Skaar and Oksas had a burning curiosity to go back to ascertain if they had missed an opportunity to escape.

They realized they hadn’t flicked the lights off and on to signal rescuers. “I could have done it in Morse code,” said Oksas, a former Boy Scout.

The two dealt differently with death that night, and differently with life afterward. No language barrier separates them, but they don’t talk a lot about the fire.

Skaar recognized death before collapsing that night, and called it by name. Oksas drew a shirt over his face, to filter the smoke, and called it sleep. Both went back to work after several weeks. In the fall, Oksas took a leave of absence to finish a master’s degree in his hometown, Chicago.

They seem puzzled that others find their story remarkable. They do not consider themselves any braver or stronger than the others, only luckier.

“Maybe one reason I’m doing OK is that I felt in control that night, and probably a lot of other people caught in the fire felt out of control and desperate,” Skaar said.

The fire atomized the world of some survivors. But for Skaar, an outgoing young woman with friends across country, it prompted a reunion by mail.

People from her hometown in Minnesota wrote that her keen survival instincts were the product of her “good Norwegian stock.”

“People kept coming up with that ‘brave’ adjective that I didn’t think was appropriate,” said Skaar, shrugging. “But, then, stress rolls off me like water off a duck. . . . And I had a wonderful support network.”

She woke up in the hospital to a concerned, loving boyfriend. Her sister, a doctor, flew in to consult with physicians. On her birthday a few days later, friends made her a cake decorated like the First Interstate Tower, with red licorice for flames. She found it healing to laugh.

Bank executives offered to fly her parents in from Minnesota and kept her on full salary during her recuperation. They also set up appointments with a psychologist to help her and Oksas cope.

The first time she recounted her story to the psychologist, Skaar said, she cried only when she came to the part where she thought she was going to die. Concerned that therapy could hurt her career, she vowed to get over that “rough spot” on the second visit. And did; she never went back.

But Skaar would tell her tale again and again, to reporters, investigators and TV producers. Each time, it would seem less like life, and more like a story.

“In the name of doing research for the movie, Melinda essentially conquered her own demons, and put herself through her own therapy,” observed Carole Bloom, an independent producer who optioned the TV movie rights.

Her only personal concern, she said, is that she still coughs up black soot, and worries about what doctors say is an increased risk of lung cancer in years ahead.

For Oksas, there didn’t seem to be a rough spot to work out.

“I didn’t think of it as a big deal then (during the fire),” he said. “I just thought it was very strange I was getting very tired and was going to pass out. . . . I refused to even think about death. Maybe just for a fleeting moment, but then I forced it out. . . . If that was denial, it worked.”

No Longer Flippant

Not until he learned from a doctor much later that the level of carbon monoxide in his blood could have killed him, did he realize how close he had come.

“I’m not flippant about it anymore,” he said. “It sunk in that this was one of the biggest things that is every going to happen to me.”

Unlike Skaar, Oksas clearly does not feel comfortable talking about the more personal aspects of the fire’s aftermath. “I’ll just say that the fire was a very big deal in my life,” he said.

Now, when he looks back on the fire, he speaks of the imaginative measures they took--breathing through plastic water bottles, trying to pry open windows with office tools--as “things we did to keep busy.”

“I can sympathize with Radmila,” he said. “If I had been in her situation, I probably would feel exactly the same way. We were trapped, but we thought we were in control. She . . . got all the stimulae of the fire and went through emotions that she’ll carry through her life.”

The irony is that Skaar’s research proved that their sense of control was an illusion.

Their careful calls to security guards and 911 operators didn’t help, she said. The helicopter pilot didn’t see their signals. Firefighters didn’t see their signs.

When their rescuers found them an hour after the flames were out, they were conducting a routine search. Nobody knew they were there at all.

In his first dreams after the fire, janitor Roberto Lopez, 40, would see himself as the helicopter spotlight had caught him through the window that night, wrapped in drapes to filter out the awful smoke.

He went through his ordeal alone, the last, except for Skaar and Oksas, to be rescued.

“I thought it was the end for me, so I said my last confession, and I commended my children to God because they are so small,” he said. “Then, when they saved me, I just thanked God that I was living.”

At home, instead of rejoicing at the miracle of his survival, he found himself scolding his three small children harshly and screaming at his wife. He had nightmares about fire.

Dreams of Fighting

“I began dreaming I was fighting with my brothers,” he said. “Once I dreamed I was fighting with my brother-in-law.” He said he rarely argues with his brothers, and his brother-in-law died three years ago.

The deep cough afflicting all who breathed that smoke went away, but the dizziness and the terrible pounding headaches seemed worse as summer progressed.

Although he fears the day he must go back, he said, he will return to work as soon as more janitors are needed when more tenants return to the building.

“One must go back,” he said. “What else is one to do?”

Lopez goes to church every week now. Once every two weeks, he and half a dozen other Spanish-speaking survivors meet with a psychiatrist who specializes in post-disaster trauma.

Their union, Local 399 of the Hospital and Service Employees Union, found the psychiatrist, provided names of lawyers to those who asked and got food stamps for those who needed them.

Topics for Discussion

At the small, painful therapy sessions, the workers talk about nightmares, depressions, and headaches and chest pains doctors cannot explain.

Albertina Ortiz is the one they worry about most.

Knowing she wasn’t supposed to take the elevator in a fire, Ortiz had run down nine flights of stairs through smoke, only to head back up again when she couldn’t find a way out. She had found herself trapped on the 31st floor with two other women janitors and a man she doesn’t know.

“I was screaming and screaming,” she said. “Then I became dumb with smoke. We could not escape and I knew we were going to die.”

Then, miraculously, two of her younger brothers who worked on the same crew came to the rescue. They had ridden an elevator down through the fire against all rules, and then, finding their sister missing, ridden it up again. A third brother waited below.

When Ortiz got home, the tears she expected to cry for joy sprang instead from pain. They lasted all day and all night.

“The hardest time was not the fire, but after,” she said.

For the first few weeks, her head and shoulders seemed frozen in cement; she could not move her neck. She could not turn on the burners on her stove to cook. She feared loud noises could ignite fires and her fear was all the harder to contain for the knowledge that it was irrational. She dreamed she was being strangled at work with the cord from her vacuum cleaner.

Reason to Worry

Although she could not afford it, she traveled home to Mexico to prove to her parents she was all right. Instead, her visit only proved that her brothers were right: there was reason to worry about Albertina.

Hardest of all for her to bear now is the change in her relationship with her husband and four children. Wife and mother seem mere roles in a play whose lines she has forgotten. On Mother’s Day, all she wanted was to be alone. She fears her children think she no longer loves them. And, in her darkest moments, she wonders if they could be right.

She cannot imagine ever returning to work, and yet she can’t imagine, for both emotional and financial reasons, staying home.

“People who didn’t go through this don’t understand,” she said, “Not even your own family can understand. My husband just tells me to forget the fire. But I can’t forget it. . . . I am very different now. I don’t look different, but I am another person.”

There are success stories.

Brent Bullard, 24, a systems analyst, and Joel Rubinstein, 31, an executive of a small investment firm on the 13th floor, may have been the first to escape. They smelled smoke before 10:30 p.m., they said, and after carefully “powering down” their computers, escaped through stairwells black with smoke. Their office was destroyed.

The biggest change they said they made in their lives was to back up their computer records so as to have off-site copies.

Some Back at Work

About 15 or 20 of the 44 janitorial staff on duty that night have returned to work. Colleagues say those who have returned were those who escaped quickly.

Zora Imamovic, 39, returned. A close friend of Radich for more than a decade, she was on the 58th floor when the fire broke out, within easy reach of the roof. A foreman, she was also schooled in evacuation routes and had the advantage of carrying a walkie-talkie.

But she has to live with a private horror that even Radich does not: the last, agonizing screams of Alexander Handy.

Handy was the 24-year-old building engineer who died in the fire when he was sent to the 12th floor to check out what was believed to be a false alarm. He called into his walkie-talkie that night, in agony, when his elevator doors opened straight into the belly of the fire. The first scream was loud, she said. The second, a moment later, was like a child’s.

Imamovic, helpless, listened 46 stories above.

Attended Funeral

“I worked with Alex for a year, everyday,” she said. “I met his family, played softball with his wife and kid. He was a wonderful guy.”

She went to his funeral. There were tears in her eyes, but she couldn’t cry. “I felt like a stone,” she said. She sees a psychiatrist twice a week since the fire. She doesn’t cry there, either. “I can’t,” she said.

She doesn’t hear echoes of Handy’s screams any more. She has blotted them out from her memory the way she taught herself to blot out sounds of wild animals when she had to get up before dawn in the Yugoslavian countryside to tend sheep as a child.

“I tell myself to forget,” she said. “Zaboravi.

And that, she said, is what she told her friend, Radmila, in Croatian when they went to put flowers on the Virgin Mary’s statue on the Feast of the Assumption. Radmila had prayed during the fire to the Virgin Mary to save her.

Zaboravi means more than just forgetting, she said.

Zaboravi implies an act of will on the part of the forgetter, she said, a deliberate blotting out of the past, a turning of the memory into nothingness, as if it had never, ever, happened.


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