Acts of Valor

Times Staff Writer

They cannot be weighed on the same scales, these varied acts of valor.

As freeways crashed and walls fell and fires blazed, Southern Californians showed their mettle Monday in many ways.

There were gestures grand and breathtaking, such as the firefighters who risked their lives to save a man crushed beneath 20 tons of Northridge Fashion Center concrete--saviors whose tools were the jackhammer and prayer.

Several unemployed medical workers, rolled out of bed by the temblor, rushed to Holy Cross Hospital in Mission Hills to bandage what wounds they could as the hospital evacuated its patients. “I’m certified (in emergency medicine) . . . Why stand around and pick my nose?” asked an insouciant Charles Miseroy. He was born in the hospital 22 years ago.


And small but no less striking actions abounded: Moments after the 4:31 a.m. quake, one man standing at 7th Street and San Vicente Boulevard in Santa Monica doled out his own kind of consolation in the form of free shots of Courvoisier.

Upstairs in one West L.A. apartment building, a man who had never so much as made eye contact with other residents went knocking on doors before dawn, using his powerful flashlight to escort his frightened neighbors to safety through darkened corridors.

From the crumpled roadways to the glass-strewn places of commerce, some Angelenos were remarkably patient and civil--observing, for once, the rules of a four-way stop at darkened intersections. In fact, people were seen stopping more readily at no lights than they often do at red ones, and urging “the other guy” to please, go ahead.

Neighbors who may have known one another only by the numbers on their addresses became chatty, even solicitous. In Eagle Rock, members of a neighborhood watch group went door to door, inquiring whether everyone inside was all right.

And at the Marriott Hotel in the Warner Center, two newlyweds still managed to celebrate their wedding night. “We did it. We’re sorry. The earth moved,” said the bridegroom, Jay Peterman, 28, of Calabasas.

But for courage in its classic sense, all eyes turned to Los Angeles’ original suburbs--the San Fernando Valley. There, firefighters and civilians together did their best to save people they may never have met.

Braving aftershocks that rocked a collapsed and sagging parking structure, firefighters danced a seven-hour rescue waltz--working for a while and then backing off during aftershocks--to save a maintenance worker trapped at the Northridge Fashion Center, near the epicenter of Monday’s 6.6 earthquake.

Salvador Pena, whose protracted ordeal made his perhaps the most celebrated rescue, was caught during his pre-dawn shift as he drove a street sweeper along the bottom floor of a three-tier parking garage. By dawn and through the day, the critically injured man talked with rescue workers as they blasted painstakingly through huge slabs of concrete to extricate him.

First came the delicate drilling through two layers of concrete; through those holes, workers fed him oxygen, inserted air bags and wood blocks to lift a concrete beam off his limbs. At last, rescuers cut Pena out of his bulky sweeper and carried him on a backboard through eight feet of rubble to a waiting helicopter. Onlookers cheered and applauded as the rescue aircraft lifted off for UCLA Medical Center.

“I almost cried. I was elated; we all were,” said Capt. Jim Vandell of the Los Angeles City Fire Department.

Throughout the ordeal, paramedics remained at Pena’s side. “He was in a lot of pain and he kept saying, ‘Come down and pray with me, come down and pray,’ ” said Rey Lavalle , a firefighter, who comforted Pena in Spanish.

“He was absolutely scared stiff and so were we,” said Firefighter Kurt Fasmer.

Pena, whose age was unknown, was in critical condition Monday night with crushed legs and a partially dislocated spine, said hospital officials.

At 23, Charlie Radcliffe was one of the youngest residents of the Fillmore mobile home park, where he had moved from Arkansas to enroll at Ventura College.

When the quake hit, Radcliffe thought it was just a strong gust of wind. But when he heard a gas line explode, he knew it was more.

His first thought was for his neighbors, most of them over 65. Radcliffe raced out of his trailer and through the park, kicking in buckled doors, braving flames and pulling more than a dozen senior citizens to safety--in one instance, shortly before a woman’s mobile home burned to the ground.

“I knew a lot of them would not be able to see without their glasses and I knew they would be shaken up,” Radcliffe said. “I just wanted to make sure everyone got out OK . . . It all happened so quick. I didn’t really even think about it. It just seemed like the right thing to do.”

At a Target store in Santa Clarita, as at other stores throughout the Southland, the right thing to do was handing out emergency supplies, free. Employees worked without electricity, without interior walls--even without ceiling tiles.

“We’ve got batteries, we’ve got flashlights, we’ve got propane, we’ve got bottled water,” said Target employee Jane Delfavero. “These are things that people need, and people are grateful for. We had one lady who needed formula and a diaper. Someone crawled back there in the dark and got it for her.”

Gratitude and grave concern made one white-haired Japanese American woman--using her metal cane and a set of bus numbers someone else wrote down for her--travel from her Little Tokyo apartment to check on her old neighbors at the Keiro Nursing Home in Lincoln Heights.

She wouldn’t give her name, and of her age, she would say only that she is over 80. She did not want to boast, she said--not like some folks who say, “I’m 90!”

She feared she would find her old neighbors disoriented, rocking alone in their beds. She wanted, she said simply, to make them feel better. “The nurses were working so hard,” is how she explained her call, in courtly, courteous Japanese.

“I thought I should say we appreciate that and we’re concerned about everybody there.”

Six-and-a-half months pregnant, Emily Nathlich of Bellevue, Wash., was staying at the Los Angeles Hilton Hotel in Downtown. Nathlich, 25, and her mother, Susan Scott, 51, were sharing a room on the hotel’s 15th floor when the quake struck.

Barefoot and wrapped in white blankets over their nightclothes, the two women hiked down 15 flights of stairs to the lobby. At each landing, they shouted out, asking whether anyone needed help. Eventually, they persuaded a few others to join their downstairs march.

“People were real quiet, holding hands, showing care for each other,” recalled Scott, still wrapped in her blanket a few hours later as sunlight began crowding out the dark.

But not all acts of heroism ended so happily.

At Northridge Meadows Apartments, Erik Pearson climbed to safety and then helped several neighbors escape from the collapsed building. But for all of his success, the only thing he could talk about Monday morning was his one failure.

“I lost one person,” Pearson said, shaking his head ruefully. “There was a little old lady in the back. Two beams fell on her. I told her to hold on, I’d be right back with a ladder. By the time I got back, she’d passed away.”