Mother Nature's show of force destroys their California dream

January 21, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES -- She is from Fells Point.

He is from Little Italy.

He ran a couple of cosmetology schools. She was a secretary in hospitals and law offices and knew Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos when he was just another struggling attorney.

They met in Baltimore. Fell in love. Sold their cars. Their furniture. Bought a couple of one-way airline tickets. Moved west in 1974.

Twenty years later they would find themselves at the epicenter of the Northridge earthquake -- and also at the center of grief, as managers of the apartment building where the most lives were lost.

Pat and Anthony Mekinski were like thousands of other transplants from the East, living out an American dream in California.

They were going to reshape their lives in the sun.

"That's the way you do it," he said. "You just pick up and leave. Unless you know somebody, you just come and get a job."

The job they found was operating apartment houses in the San Fernando Valley. First they were assistant managers. Then managers. They discovered a place they could manage and call home.

The Northridge Meadows.

"Real nice," he said. "Top-drawer stuff. Top of the line Los Angeles housing."

"We had a pool," she said. "And balconies. And a putting green. And we had a lot of nice residents. Students. Old people. Everyone got along."

Pat and Tony -- that's all anyone ever

called them out here -- were part of the scenery.

She was 46 with bleached blond hair, a warm smile, and the faint trace of a Bawlamer accent. He was 50, his red hair cut in curls, his manner as laid back as any California native.

8, They ran the building. Made sure the old

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tenants were cared for. Looked after the kids who attended California State at Northridge, a block up the street.

It was a good life that paid good money. They experienced all that Southern California had to offer -- including the earthquakes.

And now, it's gone.

Monday morning's pre-dawn big bang of an earthquake shattered the complex of 164 apartments, pancaking the stucco building.

It was like a bomb going off, followed by screams in the darkness.

"Walls were cracking," Pat said. "The whole thing sounded like a freight train coming through. The TV on the night stand flew over our heads. Everything in the bedroom went straight up and down.

"I had a table," she said. "Marble

top. It took six men to bring it up three flights to our apartment. After the earthquake, the table top had moved from the kitchen into the dining room."

Tony said simply, "It was like a movie. But it wouldn't end."

Pinned in their apartment for 90 minutes, they finally bashed their way through a balcony door. Pat screamed for neighbors to shut off the gas. Tony cleared a path for an elderly tenant to join them in making an escape. Scooping up their Pekingese dog Niki, they climbed down a ladder and slid down fire hoses into the courtyard.

When they reached the street, the sun had already risen, and they finally saw the full force of the quake.

The apartment complex was squashed.

The third floor was the second. The second was the first.

And the first was buried.

Under the rubble were 16 victims, crushed.

Under the rubble were dozens of cars, crushed.

"We were devastated," Pat said.

"This is not the big one, and I don't want to be here for that," she added.

But as the hours wore on and the aftershocks rolled through, they came to realize that something miraculous had happened.

They were alive. And others were alive, too.

"In the world today, with all the crime and drugs, everyone came together," Tony said. "Everyone helped."

But the last few days have not been easy. They spent a night at another apartment complex. They spent a night in a shelter at a local high school.

She wore jeans, a black shirt and sneakers for two days and nights. He wore overalls and cowboy boots.

They had their share of nightmares.

Sixteen people died, and they knew them all.

The young man from Boston starting up a pizza business. The classy retired couple.

Names, faces and apartment numbers disrupting their sleep.

Now, Pat and Tony are trying to help their tenants find new places to live. It's a tedious process, made more difficult because lost among the wreckage were money and credit cards.

All Pat and Tony could get out with were the clothes on their backs and the dog that they now constantly hug and pet.

"My mother died last year, and I had her wedding ring," Pat said, bursting into tears. "I lost the ring."

"We have each other," Tony said. "And we have the dog."

So they will start over.

The other night, in the shelter, the couple lay awake and talked of the future.

"We talked about Florida," she said. "We talked about Ocean City. We're heading east."

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