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A Bitter Year for Victims of Collapse

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When she’s lonely, Edelira Pineda visits an empty lot just across from Echo Park lake.

There, at the dusty parcel surrounded by a chain-link fence, she communes with the spirit of her husband, Juan Francisco Pineda, 31. He was crushed to death there a year ago when the apartment building in which they lived for eight years collapsed in a terrifying rumble.

“I take flowers to him [at the site] when I feel a need to go there,” Pineda, 32, says in Spanish.

She tells their children, Leslie Briggette, 7, and Keven, 4, that their father is still with them each night at the dinner table even as the family struggles to survive on his Social Security death benefits. And she routinely meets with other former tenants who share stories of their frantic escapes last December from the disaster that injured 35 people and set off a police investigation and a volley of lawsuits.

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The collapse of the 24-unit, two-story apartment building at 1601 W. Park Ave. just after 8 a.m. on Dec. 8, 2000, has left a hole in the neighborhood and in the lives of its largely Spanish-speaking, blue-collar residents. The Pineda family was among more than 100 residents left temporarily homeless and struggling to find other affordable housing.

Hearing that residents had complained before about the foundation and other structural problems, Los Angeles homicide investigators and city building inspectors combed through the wreckage, looking for a cause. They concluded, however, that the collapse was not caused by criminal activity or criminal negligence and that the age of the 76-year-old structure may have been to blame.

Meanwhile, a new beginning appears to be in the offing for the parcel, which has been vacant since ruins of the crumpled building were cleared away early this year.

The International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, the parent denomination of the historic Angelus Temple in Echo Park, recently purchased the 8,200-square-foot lot for more than $175,000. It wants to build low- and moderate-income housing there.

To obtain clear title, the church had to pay a tax lien of $90,000 put on the land by the city.

Church officials say their plan is still in its early stages, and they haven’t put a price tag on the housing project. But they add that what they paid was a small price to restore a sense of normality to the traumatized neighborhood.

“We want to do more than just replace the housing that was there,” says Dave Wood, the church’s property manager. “We have a real interest in improving Echo Park.”

But some suspicion is brewing over the church’s true intentions. Some area activists express fears that the church might construct a large parking structure on the site. Church officials deny that.

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Cracks Repaired in Foundation

The apartment building, built in 1924, was owned by City Properties, a partnership consisting of three Ventura County brothers, Barry, Dan and Stan Wallman. They owned the building in 1998 when city inspectors discovered cracks in the structure’s foundation, according to city records. The cracks were among 17 violations found, but inspectors concluded at the time that the deficiencies were not serious enough to justify vacating the building.

Repairs to the foundation were made after those inspections, records show.

The Wallmans did not respond to repeated calls seeking comment for this story.

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There had been some confusion over the ownership of the building at the time of the collapse, including documents that showed that a onetime tenant had taken it over. But county assessor’s records show that City Properties was the seller in the purchase by the church.

Some tenants say that on the night of Dec. 7, they noticed that some doors would not close completely. New ceiling cracks and plumbing leaks were detected.

One woman was on the phone the next morning complaining to city officials when the front of the building suddenly tumbled down. Many tenants, still in bed, were awakened by the noise and by neighbors’ screams to evacuate. Many scrambled out windows to safety. Luckily, many children had already left for school.

“All of a sudden everything started to fall,” tenant Luis Hernandez says. “I was so scared; I never thought we’d get out.”

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Pineda was crushed to death in a hallway where he had gone to smoke a cigarette. His wife suffered minor bruises in the collapse.

LAPD homicide detectives conducted an intensive investigation for several weeks and determined that the collapse may have occurred because the building was just too old.

“Investigators concluded that no criminal activity led to the collapse,” says Officer Jack Richter, an LAPD spokesman, adding that the police inquiry was closed earlier this year without any criminal charges being brought against the building’s owner.

That has not deterred a group of former tenants, including Edelira Pineda, who in February sued City Properties and the Wallman brothers individually for unspecified punitive and compensatory damages. The litigants contend that the Wallmans did not adequately maintain the building.

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The Wallmans in turn have sued the city for alleged negligence by inspectors who examined the building, contending that they did not do a thorough job. The brothers also sued the contractor who did the repair work on the foundation before the collapse.

The lot’s sale has attracted much local interest.

Angelus Temple, established by Aimee Semple McPherson in 1923, is a landmark in Echo Park. The church also owns other parcels in the immediate area, including one adjacent to the empty lot, where officials concede they may have to demolish existing houses to construct the larger affordable-housing complex.

Dealing With Emotional Scars

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Any demolition is likely to draw the ire of some Echo Park residents and activists, who say the area’s vintage but decaying homes and apartments are still worth saving.

“This is frightening to me, because the church is like a Pac-Man,” says local activist Marsha Perloff. “They keep gobbling up property.”

Wood, the church’s property owner, says that only housing would be considered for the empty lot and that the church is looking elsewhere in the neighborhood for a place to build a parking structure.

Meanwhile, former residents of the collapsed building are still dealing with the emotional scars and recurring nightmares. Some say their youngsters refuse to go into any structure that has more than one story.

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Edelira Pineda says the Sept. 11 attacks reawakened painful memories.

“I was looking for my husband [after the collapse], people were screaming and there’s a hand sticking out of the rubble,” Pineda, 32, says. “Part of his shirt was showing. When Sept. 11 happened, people were screaming and people were buried in the rubble. It brought the memories [of the collapse] all back.”

At a recent Mass at La Placita Roman Catholic Church in downtown Los Angeles to mark the one-year anniversary of the Echo Park tragedy, Pineda exchanged stories with her former neighbors.

After receiving temporary shelter, many like Pineda found other housing in Echo Park because their children liked attending nearby Logan Street Elementary School.

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But Pineda recently started to look for a new dwelling. A bank has foreclosed on the home she rented after the tragedy. “I’m back to where I was last December,” she says.

A homemaker, she and her children live on $900 in monthly death benefits from Social Security.

However, her husband’s death hasn’t persuaded her to return to her native Guatemala. “He wanted [the children] to learn English here,” she says. “I promised him that they would study here.”


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