For almost a month, Elizabeth Blanding has awaited word from the Los Angeles County coroner’s office on the fate of her missing 22-year-old daughter, Angela Powell--an apparent casualty of the Los Angeles riots.
She was not prepared for what she saw Wednesday, as she drove past the gutted store where her daughter had last been seen on the first night of the riots, April 29.
Workmen were clearing away charred rubble from the burned-out shell of the New Guys television and appliance store at Vermont and Slauson avenues, which had been set ablaze during the turmoil.
Just two weeks ago, a coroner’s team of forensic anthropologists, dentists, archeologists and others had spent 100 hours searching the ruins for Powell’s remains. In an unprecedented effort, dogs were brought to the scene to help in the search. But after three forays, authorities turned up no evidence of her daughter’s body.
Except, no one ever told Blanding the search had ended. For the past two weeks she has waited and wondered--until Wednesday.
“I just happened to be passing by there and saw two trucks in there and didn’t see the coroner,” a distraught Blanding said. “I stopped and asked (the workmen) what they were doing. They said the owner had given instructions to clean the store out.”
Blanding telephoned the coroner’s office. It was then she learned that nothing had been found.
On Wednesday, a spokesman for the coroner’s office said relatives are only called when remains are found.
“Why would the coroner call the mother? . . . We notify people when we think we have something that fits her description or that we found her,” coroner’s spokesman Scott Carrier said.
“We did the best we could do with that location. We thought we were doing the right thing,” Carrier said. “I feel very badly for this mom. Not knowing is traumatizing. It must be very agonizing for (Powell’s) mother.”
Judy Suchey, a forensic anthropologist who led the search, said Wednesday that the team covered 97% of the rubble in its search for human remains. They concentrated on areas where the fire burned hottest because that is where experts could identify human remains such as teeth or other identifiable anatomical shapes.
In other areas where the fire was not as hot, the presence of a body would likely have been apparent, Suchey said.
“We could have missed something somewhere,” Suchey said. “We certainly did a thorough job. But there’s always room for missing a few percent because of the enormity of the place.”
Carrier and Suchey said if clean-up workers find any evidence of human remains, the coroner would be called immediately.
Still, Blanding said she can’t help but wonder if her daughter’s body was overlooked. An eyewitness, Powell’s boyfriend, William Arnold, told authorities of escaping from the building and hearing screams from inside. He said he waited for Powell to emerge, but that he never saw her again.
Blanding said her daughter had entered the store to warn others of the fire. Police have declined to comment on why she was at the scene.
Blanding is still haunted by the possibility, however remote, that her daughter’s remains are in the rubble.
“There’s too much stuff left in there,” she said. “I can’t leave it like this. My daughter’s gone. She’s nowhere to be found.
“I’m at the point now of going over there and going through the building on my own. I’m not going to ask (permission). . . . If I can get enough people, I’m going to sift through that stuff myself. She could be in there and nobody would ever know. I can’t take that risk.”