SOUTH-CENTRAL : Popsicle Bridge Sticks It to the Competition

Rule No. 1 when you win a bridge-building contest: Don't burn any bridges.

That explains the lack of gloating when three teen-agers from South-Central Los Angeles unexpectedly licked the competition in a Popsicle stick construction tournament for Los Angeles County high school physics students.

The victory by 17-year-olds Carlos Enllanche, Pedro Garcia and Victor Preciado of Jefferson High School was unexpected because California's best-known professional bridge builder had predicted that a rival would win.

Contractor C.C. Myers--who earned national fame for quickly rebuilding destroyed Santa Monica Freeway spans after last year's earthquake--had praised the design of a bridge built by students at private Oakwood School in North Hollywood.

Myers was a judge at the contest, conducted last month at Loyola Marymount University by the American Society of Civil Engineers for 300 students from 27 high schools.

The Jefferson teen-agers listened silently as Myers suggested that the Oakwood entry could handle up to 500 pounds of pressure. "Some of these others won't hold 100 pounds," he said.

Popsicle sticks snapped and flew through the air when entries were squeezed by a hydraulic press during final judging.

Sixteen-year-old Lorraine Levers of Glendora threw her hands over her head and ran for cover when her bridge popped at 82 pounds. Sylmar's Cristina Mendoza, 18, grimaced as hers collapsed at just 7 pounds. Eric Liu, 15, of Diamond Bar yelled as his buckled at 35 pounds: "I can't watch this. It's going to explode!"

There were gasps from the crowd when the Jefferson High entry handled more than 833 pounds of pressure.

And there were more gasps when the Oakwood bridge--the final entry--cracked apart at a mere 33 1/3 pounds.

Myers had left for work by that time. "The glue didn't hold," surmised Oakwood's Denny Oppenheimer, 16, of Encino.

Jefferson High won in both the strongest and greatest-load-to-weight-ratio categories.

Jefferson's winners were modest when they collected their prizes--plaques and scientific calculators. Enllanche, who plans to become an engineer, would not criticize the early prediction.

"Sometimes," he said delicately, "something can look strong but it's not."

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