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Northridge Meadows Owners Drop Gag Order Request

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The owners of the collapsed Northridge Meadows apartments dropped their request for a gag order Friday, leaving photographs and videotapes of the crumbling complex and the original building plans open to public review.

The move was hailed by structural engineers and members of public agencies studying seismic safety in the aftermath of the Jan. 17 Northridge quake, the most destructive in Los Angeles history.

“I’m very happy to hear this information is in the public domain,” said Fred Turner, staff structural engineer for the state Seismic Safety Commission.

During the brief hearing at which the request was dropped, San Fernando Superior Court Judge Judith Meisels Ashmann ordered that the Reseda Boulevard complex be preserved as evidence through a controlled demolition. At a cost of about $500,000, the building will be taken down piece by piece while construction materials are studied and tenants’ possessions are retrieved.

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No demolition date has been set, but a hearing before the city’s Building and Safety Committee is scheduled next week. Attorneys said they expect the city to follow the court order.

Lawyers for the families of five of the 16 people who died at Northridge Meadows were in the courtroom Friday, and the number of Northridge Meadows negligence and wrongful death suits is expected to grow. San Fernando Superior Court Judge William A. MacLaughlin is to hear all the cases.

Joel Castro, a Santa Monica lawyer who represents the families of quake victims Ann Cerone and Bea Reskin, has hired a team of experts to photograph and study the ruins of the complex. They spent three days at the site last week but still need to examine the first floor, where the most compelling evidence may be found, Castro said.

On Friday, Castro asked the court for permission to enter the ruined complex to retrieve a tenant’s diary, which he said contained a two-year log of problems and repeated requests for repairs. The diary is buried in the rubble, Castro said.

MacLaughlin agreed to tour the site Wednesday after attorneys for both sides told him that viewing it would help him comprehend the complex issues and devastation.

Time pressure and the unique challenges of preserving a rat- and fly-infested disaster scene as evidence have spawned a spirit of cooperation among the attorneys in the case. They have shared expenses and evidence during the early stages of their cases.

But a dispute over how that evidence is used led to Friday’s hearing.

E. A. Tharpe III and Robert M. Freedman, attorneys for building owners Shashikant and Renuka Jogani, had sought to block public disclosure of evidence gathered by experts, claiming that publicity would harm the Joganis’ reputations and prejudice prospective jurors against them.

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But, Tharpe said, the Joganis decided to withdraw the gag order request “so it will be clear we are not trying to hide anything in this case.”

The lawsuit names the Joganis, who purchased the apartments about 10 years after they were built; Heller Construction of Westlake Village, which built the complex, architect Morris Brown and structural engineer Woodward Tom.

Just days after the quake, engineers and officials with the city’s Building and Safety department said the lack of plywood-reinforced shear walls probably played a role in the collapse. Such plywood reinforcements were not required in 1970, when the building plans were approved. Attorneys for Heller have said the company complied with codes when the structure was built in the early 1970s.

Castro has agreed to release his data to any public agency that asks for it; Tharpe said the owners also would provide findings of their experts at cost.

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