Experts Investigate Building Collapse

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Authorities searched for clues Saturday in the collapse of an Echo Park apartment building, as dozens of displaced residents--mostly immigrants from Mexico and Central America and their children--struggled to put their shattered lives back together.

"It's Christmas and I'm homeless," said Ana Avila, a mother of three and one of a number of former occupants who went to the site, hoping to retrieve valuables left inside.

Many of the low-income tenants--from the collapsed building and an adjoining apartment complex damaged in the incident--were staying with friends or relatives or at a nearby shelter set up by the American Red Cross, which also provided other aid. City officials were also attempting to assist the newly homeless in finding apartments in an already tight rental market.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles police assumed overall control of the investigation into the collapse, which killed one man and left at least 36 people injured, mostly with scratches and bruises.

Experts from several city departments and from a private contractor entered the ruins on Saturday in an effort to determine the cause. But officials had yet to conclude why the 24-unit building, built in 1924, caved in early Friday.

Also unclear was who owned the building.

"We don't know who the owner is yet, but when we find out, we'd like to talk to him," said Sgt. John Pasquariello, a police spokesman.

The two-story, wood and stucco complex was found to have a "damaged foundation" during a 1998 city building inspection. But officials said repairs were eventually done.

When city officials ordered the damaged foundation and other problems fixed two years ago, the owner was listed as City Properties. That firm is now believed to be defunct, officials said. But City Properties' mailing address was a post office box in Moorpark also used by several other companies, including Wallman Enterprises.

Several residents of the destroyed building said they wrote their rent checks out to Barry or Dan Wallman, brothers believed to have considerable real estate holdings. One resident said the two brothers visited the site last week.

A man who answered the telephone at Wallman Enterprises office on Saturday declined to comment.

Many former residents were angry at what they said was the deplorable state of disrepair in the building.

"I blame the landlords for not taking proper care and the city for not making sure it was safe," said Alfonso Lemus, who had lived there four years with his wife and daughter. "With all the problems we had, it was predictable something like this would happen."

Meanwhile, residents and the curious continued to stream past the damaged, faux mission-style structure, which caved in like a collapsed wedding cake. The site is just across the street from Echo Park, a Los Angeles landmark where patrons rode paddle boats Saturday on the scenic lake with a clear view of the Los Angeles skyline.

Avila was one of many who hoped to enter their apartments to retrieve valuables and mementos. She was particularly concerned about Christmas ornaments that had been in her family for three generations.

Roberto Hernandez was worried about $3,000 that he and other family members had stashed away to send to loved ones in Mexico. The money was kept in a closet, Hernandez said.

But police said the building was not yet safe to enter. Officials say that residents seeking to retrieve belongings may be able to enter with police or fire department escort by Monday. The site has been fenced off, and there is a 24-hour police guard.

Among those arriving on Saturday was a distraught Edelmira Pineda, whose husband, Juan Francisco Pineda, was killed when part of the building fell on him. The couple arrived from Guatemala 10 years ago and are the parents of two young children. He was a laborer.

"Francisco was a hard-working man who cared for his family," the widow said as she stood across the street from the fallen structure.

The Pineda family had been planning a surprise party for Francisco on Monday, his 32nd birthday, she said.

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