Triple-digit heat blamed in deaths of 16 Calif. residents
Crews work to end outages that in some cases have lasted 3 days
By Francisco Vara-Orta and Ari B. Bloomekatz
Los Angeles Times
Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times
All Rights Reserved
LOS ANGELES — Southern California's heat wave is suspected in the deaths of at least 16 people, officials said Monday as utilities struggled to fix power transformers overloaded by eight days of extreme weather that is expected to finally cool today.
The deaths included an elderly couple in Valley Village who had told neighbors they were trying to keep their air conditioner off to save money, a 45-year-old woman separated from two friends after their car crashed in the desert and a Pasadena woman in her 80s whose body was discovered in her apartment, where the temperature was 115 degrees.
Hundreds of utility crews spent Monday trying to restore power to about 64,000 households, some of which have been without electricity for three days.
"We felt like we were being tortured," said Matthew Lorenzen, 28, whose Los Feliz home lost power several times Saturday, Sunday and Monday. "It was just horrible — lots of still, hot nights."
The National Weather Service said those nights will be cooling, at least a little, beginning today as the heat wave ebbs.
Temperatures, which reached the upper 90s on Tuesday in places like Woodland Hills and Van Nuys, were expected to drop 5 to 10 degrees today with the arrival of a low-pressure front, said Stuart Seto, a weather specialist for the National Weather Service. Temperatures will continue to fall gradually through the rest of the week.
Twelve of the deaths reported occurred across a wide section of Los Angeles County, including the San Fernando Valley, the Fairfax district and downtown L.A. Three victims were found in San Bernardino County and one in Riverside County.
The fatalities come a year after another major heat wave killed more than 140 people statewide — mostly in Central and Northern California. In the wake of those deaths, state officials launched an in-depth look at how to prevent such loss of life this summer.
They found that most of the victims were elderly, poor and frail — and that early assessments significantly undercounted the number of people who succumbed to the heat. Many of the victims died several days into the heat wave and either didn't have air conditioners in their living quarters or for some reason didn't use them.
But this summer, officials said the death toll included people of many ages — some elderly but also a 26-year-old man riding his dirt bike, a metal scavenger in his 30s and a woman in her 40s. Officials also warn that the toll could rise as more autopsies are completed this week.
The Valley Village couple — Menahen "Max" Lugassi , 82, and Dolores "Sara" Del Valle, 87 — were discovered in their apartment in the 5100 block of Laurel Canyon Boulevard on Sunday at 4:30 p.m, said coroner's spokesman Capt. Ed Winter.
Neighbors remembered the couple as "inseparable," with Del Valle caring for Lugassi as his health deteriorated over the last few months after he suffered a stroke last year.
"He couldn't walk at all," said Sheila Friedman, 65, the apartment complex manager, who knew the couple for 20 years. "His wife centered her life around his. You'd always see her pushing him in his wheelchair around the complex. She slept by his side every night when he was at the hospital for a week after his stroke."
Lugassi's nephew visited the couple over the weekend and was upset that his uncle refused to switch on the air-conditioner. Keeping it off, the couple said, saved them about $50 over the summer months, Friedman said.
"My cleaning lady recently came down to complain that it was too hot in there to work," she added. "I couldn't force them to turn it. . . . It's just horrible. It could have been prevented."
About the same time Sunday in Pasadena, 85-year-old Dorothy McGlothan was discovered dead by her daughter.
McGlothan had lived in her apartment for almost 40 years without air conditioning, relatives said. When paramedics arrived, the temperature in her apartment was 115 degrees, Winter said.
"She said all she needed was a fan," said Dedrick Hayes, 33, one of McGlothan's grandchildren. "My grandmother didn't like anyone intruding in her life. She was very independent, had been a widow for like 25 years and was a bit stubborn about listening to us."
Survived by four children, 10 grandchildren and 33 great-grandchildren, McGlothan "held the family together, keeping tabs on all of us spread all over the country. . . . She was in good health and had been able to stand the heat all these years, so it's a shock this has happened," Hayes said.
Michael Visser was riding his dirt bike Saturday afternoon in Texas Canyon near Saugus when he got separated from friends. Janelle Dickinson, Visser's aunt, said that his bike then broke down and that he appeared to have pushed it to some nearby shade.
The friends found him an hour later, unconscious beneath a tree. Dickinson said Visser, a 26-year-old Winnetka carpenter who went dirt biking "every chance he got," appears to have died of heat stroke.
Outside Baker in the Mojave Desert, a car carrying three friends along California 27 went off the road and into the sand.
The three friends split up to find help, authorities said, and one of them was able to briefly get enough cellphone service to call the Sheriff's Department about 1 p.m. Sunday.
Authorities reached two of the men by 6:30 p.m. The group's car was found at 9 p.m. by a helicopter. Soon after, deputies discovered the body of the third member of the party, a 47-year-old woman whose name has not been released.
In Lancaster, the body of Linda Burkhart, 53, was found in her car by a passerby about 12:45 p.m. Sunday in the 700 block of West Avenue I, said sheriff's Sgt. Martin Rodriguez. Burkhart appeared to be living out of the vehicle. Her body was sitting in a reclined position, as if she died while sleeping.
Joseph Maxwell, 25, who works at the Goodwill Store and Donation Center across the street from the parking lot where Burkhart's body was found, said he first noticed her about a month ago. He said she would sit for hours in her car, even in the hot sun.
"I never saw her outside the car," he said. "She would park there but never spoke to anybody."
Urel Dujon, 77, died in his home on Carmona Avenue in Los Angeles' Mid-City area, where he was a familiar sight walking in the neighborhood of Spanish-style bungalows.
"I was just telling my husband that he looked better than us," said Marina Ruiz, 41, who lives in the back unit of the triplex where Dujon lived. Ruiz said that it had been unbearably hot in her unit over the last few days and that she and her husband left to stay with relatives who have a pool.
In addition to the heat-related deaths, a worker trying to repair a power line that malfunctioned because of the high temperatures was killed when a transformer fell on him.
Richard Eastman of Irvine was working in Beaumont for Par Electrical Contractors when the incident occurred.
Kate McGuire, spokeswoman for Cal-OSHA, said Eastman was winching a new transformer to the top of a power pole when a rope became entangled in the winch. When he tried to correct the tangle, the rope slipped and the transformer came down on top of him, she said.
Crews around Southern California were working through the night to restore power.
"We're trying to work as hard as we can," said Walter Zeisl, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. "It's hard to project [when power will return] with so many different outages."
Zeisl said electrical components can normally recover overnight or in the early morning, but not in recent days, when temperatures still exceeded 75 or 80 degrees in the early hours.
Some residents have been so desperate to overcome the outages that they've put themselves in danger.
In Highland Park, five people were seriously sickened by carbon monoxide poisoning after using a make-shift gas generator to power their home.
Although this heat wave, which began last week, led to fatalities, it was not the most sustained heat wave in recent memory. Heat waves in August of 1983 and 1995 each lasted 13 days.