FACES OF THE BANKRUPTCY : NORM HOWELL, 49, IRVINE

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.

Norm Howell, a man used to putting the pieces together, was getting sick of watching everything fall apart.

As a facilities project manager for the county, Howell was accustomed to finding solutions for challenges as varied as hazardous-waste cleanups and combating noise at John Wayne Airport. But when his job evaporated, Howell became an answer man faced with an unexpected life question: What next?

"I had a job oriented to results," he said. "Whatever it takes, you do it. I was used to making things work. Then, suddenly, nothing was working. Nothing in my life was working right. It was frustrating."

His job search left him even more dejected. The construction market in Southern California offered few new opportunities and a long list of competitors. When Howell realized that he had been dealt a bad hand, though, he decided to change the game altogether.

"Computers," he said. "Compare the classified ads for construction jobs to computer jobs sometime. It wasn't hard to see what direction things were going in."

Howell had done electrical work before, but he knew little about computers. He bought some computer kits and spent most nights at his home worktable. Now, about 10 months later, Howell has landed in the Information Age.

"I used to just play games with computers," he said. "Now I can build them."

Howell's girlfriend, Sheryl Silver, was also an employment casualty of the bankruptcy. Silver managed to find work in a matter of weeks, though, allowing Howell to rely on her as he attended trade school to learn computer network installation.

The couple's income has been halved--they were making a combined $80,000 before being laid off just days before Christmas 1994--and Howell has moved into Silver's home to cut expenses.

Howell has bitter feelings for county leaders and bad memories of his old job. Leaving has had a positive impact on his life, removing him from a stressful environment and forcing him to "get off the dime."

"Life wasn't right before," he said. "It was more secure, but it was detrimental for me to work there. I know now that it was all for the best. It was just a matter of making everything work again."

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