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Death at a Historic Site

Times Staff Writers

It was just before twilight Tuesday when Gary Garcia slipped through a chain-link fence, scrambled down an embankment of freshly bulldozed earth and began digging for relics of a forgotten Los Angeles landmark.

With traffic from the nearby Santa Ana Freeway droning in their ears, Garcia, a family member and two friends used shovels, pickaxes and a tattered antique map to search for artifacts from downtown’s once-famous Maier Brewing Co.

The brewery was once so prominent that a section of the freeway was built around it. One of its vats was rumored to be the site where a notorious mob figure was dumped.

Kneeling beside a 5-foot berm, Garcia, 52, and his cohorts began unearthing cans and bottles of Brew 102, virtual gold nuggets to a quirky community of antique beer bottle collectors. Without warning, the berm collapsed, pouring tons upon tons of earth and gravel over Garcia and slowly crushing him to death.

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Now, as friends and family mourn his death, the tragedy and the reason for it have shed new light on the history of a storied piece of downtown real estate.

The site was home to El Aliso, the ancient sycamore tree that was the heart of the Gabrielino village of Yang-Na -- the original Los Angeles village.

The Philadelphia Brewery rose on the site in 1875 and later became Maier Brewing, one of the nation’s best-known bottlers of working-class brew.

Now a vacant lot, the site will be used for support columns for the Eastside extension of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Gold Line train.

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“They knew what they were looking for,” Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Brian Humphrey said Wednesday of Garcia’s group. “There were indications that they’d been doing this on more than one occasion.”

The men, he said, were making a last-ditch effort to unearth relics as the freeway and rail project progressed. “When that’s done, this site will be paved over and there will be no access,” Humphrey said.

The foundation for Maier Brewing was laid in 1882 when brewer George Zobelein joined with German immigrant Joseph Maier to create the Maier and Zobelein brewery, a workplace so congenial that samples of beer were delivered to employees throughout the day.

After Maier’s death in 1904, his share of the company went to his two sons; Zobelein eventually left over a bitter disagreement. Younger son Eddie became the head of the renamed Maier Brewing Co. after his older brother, Fred, died in 1910. At that time, Eddie also inherited the Vernon Tigers, a baseball team in the Pacific Coast League, which served double duty as advertising for Maier’s beer.

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In these early days, the Maier brewery became a hangout for famous sportsmen and local law enforcement agents.

But Prohibition put a crimp in the operation’s style, forcing it to bottle “near beer” -- a concoction containing less than 1% alcohol. Or at least that’s what the brewery declared publicly. Time and again, federal agents raided the brewery and confiscated barrels of more potent beer.

After World War II, Brew 102 was born -- the cheapest brew in a workingman’s town. The new name was the brainchild of a bunch of 1940s advertising executives who worked for Maier Brewing -- then the fifth-largest brewer in the state. To boost the flagging sales of its trademark Maier Beer, the executives decided to remarket an identical brew with a new name and a catchy new jingle:

More than 100 beers we did brew,

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Perfecting the new finer Brew 102.

In the East and the West,

Maier Beer is the best.

Wonderful, wonderful Brew 102.

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It was an immediate success. Old brick buildings of the quaint Bavarian brewery came down and new, hulking, no-frills industrial ones went up. The state Department of Transportation was forced to curve around the formidable obstacle when the freeway was laid out in the 1950s.

At its height in the 1950s, the company was turning out 370,000 barrels of Maier, Brew 102 and other private labels each day.

But as Angelenos cultivated a taste for foreign and premium beers, Maier Brewing began to fall by the wayside. ABC Brewing took over the plant for a time. Then, in 1958, the brewery was purchased by San Francisco beer magnate Paul Kalmanovitz.

In 1972, the suds of Brew 102 stopped flowing in Los Angeles. The huge copper kettles from the city’s oldest brewery -- kettles the employees used to fill with water and swim in when the week’s batch of beer was done -- were abandoned. The building became an unofficial refuge for the homeless for 13 years. The pots and kettles that were not stolen were sold for scrap before the buildings were torn down in 1985 for a parking lot.

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At the time of Tuesday’s berm collapse, a 65-year-old Whittier man, whose name was not released, managed to scramble to safety. He was covered in blood after digging himself out, and remained hospitalized in fair condition with unspecified injuries.

Firefighters arriving on the scene found Garcia conscious and talking with just his face and shoulders visible. “Initially he thought he could extricate himself,” said Fire Department apparatus operator Nelson Joo. “He was telling us, ‘Just give me a little shovel to get some dirt out of here.’ ”

Nearly 100 rescuers struggled to shore up the trench with plywood and wooden beams. Firefighter John Ziola hopped into the 5-foot-deep trench and tried to place an oxygen mask on Garcia, but he refused.

“He didn’t say he was in pain,” Joo said. “He kept stressing he needed a little leg room and he could get himself out.”

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Firefighters dug madly at the pile of earth.

“The adrenaline was really pumping through everybody,” said firefighter David Tamura. He and about seven others flung away rock, hard clay and dry dirt at a frantic pace, using shovels, pry bars, pickaxes and their hands. They used a winch to lift a large rock off the mound of debris, but there was so much debris, it didn’t help much.

“It seemed like hours of digging,” Joo said. “We were moving tons of dirt, and it didn’t seem to make any difference.”

Ziola continued efforts to put an oxygen mask on Garcia to give him an air pocket and buy more time if a second collapse occurred, but Garcia still refused.

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“Some people get claustrophobic in those situations,” Joo said.

Garcia’s breathing became more labored. After less than 45 minutes, Ziola announced that Garcia had stopped breathing.

“It’s hard,” Joo said. “All of a sudden you see the guys stand up and call it.”

They labored for about another hour to uncover the body. Then it was wrapped in a sheet and placed in the coroner’s van.

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News of Garcia’s death brought an outpouring of sentiment from those who knew him and those who recalled the Maier brewery.

Deborah Chenault of South Los Angeles called authorities Wednesday to find out how she could get in touch with Garcia’s family. Although she does not know him, she said, she immediately thought of several cans of Maier beer that a construction crew had discovered above the ceiling of her bathroom during a recent renovation project. The cans had apparently been left behind by the carpenters who built her home in the 1940s.

“It’s so sad,” Chenault said. “I’d love to give these cans to his family.”

Times staff writer Monte Morin contributed to this report.

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