Death, Fickle in the Ruins, Takes at Least 33

Times Staff Writers

It was, as always, the most fickle of catastrophes, bestowing death with nature’s cold caprice: Fifteen from a stucco Northridge apartment building. Two from a million-dollar home in Sherman Oaks. One from Skid Row. One from the ranks of the Los Angeles police.

Elizabeth Ann Brace, mother of two, was in her home in Rancho Cucamonga, 102 miles from the epicenter of Monday’s Northridge quake. Death found her anyway. When she ran to check the baby, officials said, she apparently tripped on a toy, fell and dashed her skull against her child’s crib. Her husband, a gray-haired, bespectacled man, was in the next room checking on their 5-year-old son. By Monday afternoon, he said, he still had not mustered the courage to tell his children their mother is gone.

Brace’s death was the most distant, but it was by no means the only one. By nightfall, the death toll from the 6.6 magnitude earthquake had reached an unofficial count of 33. At least six were victims of heart attacks. The others were casualties of chaos and its aftermath.

* In the stucco-and-steel rubble that had been the Northridge Meadows apartment complex on Reseda Boulevard, firefighters had found 15 bodies by late Monday, all from the flattened first floor. Survivors said the three-story building began to collapse when the first jolts of the quake knocked out the ground-floor pilings that supported the parking garage.


As the earth rolled, they said, the middle floors collapsed as if they were a house of cards. First, witnesses said, the air was filled with screams. Then it was suffused with silence. Among the youngest victims was a 14-year-old boy, Howard Lee, who had left his boarding school to visit his parents.

* On the pitch-black overpass where the Antelope Valley Freeway segues into the Golden State; an LAPD motorcycle officer plunged to his death when his vehicle catapulted over a gaping hole in the buckled asphalt. Witnesses watched, horrified, as Clarence Wayne Dean, 46, of Lancaster, a 26-year veteran of the force, flew off the edge of the bridge and plummeted 40 feet to the pavement below.

“His lights were still flashing and he just came tumbling down,” said Andy Jimenez, 33, of Santa Clarita. “It was unreal.”

LAPD Lt. John Dunkin said Dean apparently did not realize in the dark that the freeway had collapsed, and he was unable to stop in time. Dean, assigned to the Valley Traffic Division, is survived by a 26-year-old son, Dunkin said.

* In Room 610 of a Skid Row flophouse, a mentally ill former convict died without a witness to say whether it was an accident or a suicide. Jose Hernandez either fell or jumped from his open window when the Frontier Hotel at Main and 5th streets began to sway. Authorities did not discover his body until about 15 minutes later, when security guards began to evacuate the establishment.

Police said it appeared that Hernandez, a transient in his 40s, was taken by surprise when the building began to shudder and that he fell accidentally. But the manager of the hotel, where he had stayed off and on since November, said Hernandez’s parole officer had described him as unstable; he speculated that the man had “panicked and jumped.”

* On a canyontop cul-de-sac in Sherman Oaks, on a street known for its breathtaking views, Mark Yupp, a 31-year-old entertainment industry executive, and his 32-year-old fiancee, Kerry, were found dead in what was left of their downstairs bedroom. Police said the two were apparently asleep when the quake uprooted their hillside home. Beams and wiring, furniture and concrete were scattered for more than 100 yards down the slope from the house’s foundation, punctuated in two spots by the wreckage of their cars, a BMW and a Porsche.

More than a dozen neighbors, barefoot and shivering, tried to rescue the couple, digging frantically with their hands. But when aftershocks hit, they said, they were forced to run to safety. Only the couple’s whimpering puppy survived.

“Someone yelled up the street in the darkness, ‘Dial 911! The house here went down the hill, the cars, everything!’ ” said Chuck Mitchell, 53, a retired sheriff’s deputy who was staying in a nearby house. “We all ran down there with our flashlights, but we couldn’t see anything. The house was totally gone.”

* Nearby, in the 3600 block of Beverly Ridge Drive, another mountainview home was knocked off its stilts and down the side of a canyon, trapping and killing a 4-year-old girl. Bert Lockwood, a neighbor whose own home sustained considerable damage, said it took firefighters about two hours to scramble down the hill and cut through the debris with chainsaws to free the home’s owners, Stas Vigil and Nancy Tyere. But it was not until midmorning, he said, that rescue workers were able to locate their daughter, Amy. Lockwood said he watched sadly as the workers wrapped the little body in a blanket and took her away. “You could look down the hill and see teddy bears and pink blankets,” he said.

The child was the youngest known casualty late Monday, authorities said, but they warned that the toll probably will rise.

Emergency workers said Monday that it will take as long as two weeks to clear the debris from the spot where the Antelope Valley Freeway collapsed onto the Golden State and to unearth any vehicles that might have been crushed there. And several of those injured at Northridge Meadows remained in critical condition Monday night.

Meanwhile, as night fell, coroner’s investigators continued to increase the death toll: a Chatsworth man who was fatally struck on the head by a falling object inside his mobile home. A 45-year-old man in the Fairfax area who also suffered a fatal head injury. A 92-year-old woman who died in a trailer fire in Northridge. And a 25-year-old Sherman Oaks man who was electrocuted when he touched a wire.

As coroners’ investigators struggled to identify the dead, survivors grappled with the devastation of sudden loss.

“I have a hard time explaining how she fell so hard,” said Brace’s stricken husband, Thomas, 49, standing red-eyed in the pastel living room of their four-bedroom Rancho Cucamonga home. Surrounded by a litter of Aladdin coloring books and baby toys, Brace seemed stunned as he recounted the particulars of their life.

He and Elizabeth, he said, had married late and had moved from Lomita to the Inland Empire because they could afford a bigger home and she could afford to become a full-time homemaker and mom.

“Everything was exactly as we had planned it,” he said. “Except we didn’t plan this morning.”

They were in bed, he said, when they felt the jolt. They waited a moment before rising to check on the children. He went to their daughter’s room while she ran to check on their son, 17 months. He heard a thump, he said, and found his wife unconscious near the crib.

San Bernardino County Coroner’s Deputy Monika Padilla said an autopsy is pending, “but from the looks of things, it looked like she just hit the crib the wrong way--like it was just one of those freak accidents.”

Her husband was at a loss for words. Asked to describe his wife, he looked blankly at a reporter.

“I loved her very much,” was all he could say.

The Toll

A magnitude 6.6 earthquake, centered in Northridge, struck at 4:31 a.m. Monday. Officials reported the following:

* DAMAGE: Sections of several freeways and highways were closed after suffering major damage. Utility service was disrupted for hundreds of thousands of people. Damage to homes and businesses was reported as far north as Fillmore and as far south as Anaheim.

* DEATHS: At least 33 deaths were reported, 15 at the Northridge Meadows apartments. Hundreds of people throughout the area were injured.

* CURFEW: Mayor Richard Riordan declared a citywide curfew, making it illegal for people to remain on the streets between dusk and dawn.