FACES OF THE BANKRUPTCY : LENA GNIADEK, 70, MISSION VIEJO

They were all Orange County employees until the bankruptcy opened a trapdoor beneath them, sending their lives tumbling into uncertainty. The Times told the stories of 50 such workers in March. One year after the bankruptcy, we revisit eight of them below.

When her husband died three years ago, it was the job that helped Lena Gniadek swallow the grief and carry on. As she had learned seven years earlier, when her 27-year-old son died, the workplace could provide an escape when the pain was too much.

As her 70th birthday approached, Gniadek found another salvation among her labors at the county registrar of voters office. Her job of 13 years could distract her from other grim thoughts.

"When you're old you don't want to think about not having a future," she said, her voice cracking. "When you are working and busy, you feel useful, like you have a purpose. You don't have time to sit and think about the future. And the bad things in the past."

Gniadek began to cry. In the 10 months since she lost her job, she has undergone surgery, suffered a stroke and wrestled with high blood pressure. "I had never been to the doctor before I got fired," she said. She has also been forced to put her home up for sale and move into a gated senior citizens community.

Now, she said, she has plenty of time to sit and think.

"All these memories, all these heartaches," she said. "I wouldn't have been so bad if I had retired, but the way they sent us out. . . . Well, you like to be in charge of your life, no matter how old you are, and when you lose that control you get angry. I am very angry."

Her anger is directed at county leaders, the "bums" who were oblivious to the risky financial investments that sapped the county. The abrupt, impersonal handling of the layoffs has made Gniadek bitter. How, she wondered, could dedicated employees be turned out as if the bankruptcy were their fault? She declined to accept any benefits from the county.

"I want to forget I ever worked there."

She says she is doing better. Her mobility and her memory, both hampered by the stroke, are improving steadily. She is busying herself with her new home, which she moved into last month, and is looking forward to her grandson's holiday visit. When she feels her conversation is dwelling too long on the heartaches, she abruptly stops to set the record straight.

"I'm rallying, I'm doing OK," she said. "I'm not a complainer. All I can do is go on, and hope things will work out. I am a fighter. There is nothing else to be."

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