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MARK RIGHTMIRE/The Orange County Register
An aerial photograph of the aftermath of the landslide Thursday in San Juan Capistrano. 'I don't think it was natural,' homeowner Jim Lee said.

Landslide claims 3 back yards

CITIES: Residents believe grading below the hill is the cause. Investigations will determine the official reason.

May 22, 1998

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — The earth shuddered and John Jay Curtis woke up. Must be a distant quake, he thought. No big deal.

He dragged his trash cans to the curb and then wandered into his kitchen for a drink of water.

"Then I looked out in my yard, and three-quarters of it was gone," said Curtis, 55. "I thought, 'My God, I'm going to lose the house!' "

A landslide hit without warning and sheared the back yards off three homes on Via La Mirada just after 7 a.m. Thursday.

In an instant, an $80,000 swimming pool, patios and 300,000 cubic yards of dirt dropped 100 feet down the hillside.

Residents of these homes with panoramic ocean views and $600,000 price tags immediately pointed to what they believe caused the slide: grading for a new development of 400 homes at the foot of the hill behind their property.

"I don't think it was natural," said Jim Lee, 63, whose home was unharmed but still yellow-tagged because of its proximity to the slide.

"The Lord protected us and our home for 20 years, and then they started grading."

Joseph A. Ferrentino, an attorney for developer SunCal Companies, said the company wants to help residents inconvenienced by the slide — and has agreed to pay their immediate lodging costs — but has not determined what caused the slide.

"Right now we're not thinking about who is responsible," Ferrentino said. "Obviously we were grading in the area, although it was pretty far in distance from the slide."

A San Juan Capistrano Water Department worker on his daily check of the McCraken Reservoir saw the hillside crumble.

"I just witnessed this whole landslide," Harry Bossler radioed to headquarters and Public Works Director Amy Amirani. "It looks like the houses are coming down — get up here!"

Amirani hopped in a car and was there in five minutes — in time to see Curtis' pool and the back yards of Lisa Wenlin Kuo and Brett and Becky Trowbridge collapse.

"It was just gone in one second," Amirani said. "It didn't drag, it didn't roll, it didn't tumble. It was there one second and it disappeared the next moment."

San Juan Capistrano city officials ordered all grading to stop at the development until investigations are completed.

Some expressed frustration that the slide had happened despite years of geotechnical reports on the project.

"It's terrible," City Manager George Scarborough said. "How could this happen with all the work that has been done?

"Maybe there isn't an answer to that question," he said. "The main question is, what happened here and how can we prevent it from happening again?"

Bill Huber, the city's director of engineering and building, said a temporary buttress — a wall of dirt 30 feet high — will be built at the foot of the hill to try to stabilize it. An official cause will not be determined for several weeks.

"The developer has been working at the toe of the slope," Huber said. "There could have been some grading problems. And also it could be the heavy rains. We could blame it on El Nino."

Curtis said he had worried about a landslide since construction crews started to grade the 9 million cubic yards of earth they planned to move to build the Pacific Point subdivision.

He has written five letters to SunCal since March after he noticed cracks at the top of the hill behind his home that grew from 1 inch to a foot in width.

SunCal sent geologists to his home each time but did not accept responsibility for the cracks, suggesting that they could have been caused by any number of factors.

"We have no reason to believe any of the subcontractor's construction actions are causing the property damage you are experiencing," SunCal official Gary H. Luque wrote April 29.

The most recent visit by SunCal workers was Saturday after Curtis spotted a large landslide across the canyon.

"There's a horrendous collapse over there where they were grading," Curtis said. "I told them that was going to happen over here if they didn't do something."

When something did happen early Thursday, most of the residents who live in the Meredith Canyon neighborhood in the hills east of the San Diego (I-5) Freeway were just waking.

Sheriff's deputies and city employees rushed to alert residents, many of whom did not know what had happened.

Cathy Latty lives just a few houses away from the slide area, but her sister in Whittier heard about the landslide first.

"I was eating cereal, and my sister calls," Latty said. "She says, 'Check out the landslide.' I didn't know anything about it. Then all of a sudden I hear these helicopters."

Curtis, a tax-appeals attorney who works out of his home, said he was concerned about how long he would be displaced and how that affect his business.

Worried that the earth might keep crumbling and claim his home, he called movers to take his collections of art, Baccarat crystal and Versace china.

As news helicopters circled overhead and geologists scrambled in the valley beneath him, Lee looked calm. Happy, even.

He pointed to the fissure that made a sharp turn around his property, leaving it intact.

"The Lord saved my back yard," he said.

The Trowbridges, who live next to Lee, lost part of their yard, but their neighbor, Lisa Wenlin Kuo, lost most of hers.

There, the ground had dropped in a cartoonishly huge chunk. Broken sprinkler pipes stuck out from the newly carved cliff like bug antennae.

Beyond the Kuo yard was Curtis' home. His back yard ended abruptly about 20 feet from the house. The stairs to his pool led to nothing but space. Below, the pool lay unrecognizable amid rubble of dirt and purple ice plant.

Many residents said they felt that SunCal has tried to be a good neighbor during construction.

Marvin Rosen, president of the homeowners association, said work crews had done a good job keeping dust down during grading and had offered to take pictures of their homes so they could document damage.

Lee worries about the slide's impact on property values in his 181-home tract.

"Even if you can repair the major damage, you can't repair that," he said.

Myrna Prince, whose home escaped damage, looked out at the ocean view that enticed her to move from Fountain Valley 10 years ago, then looked at the wreckage below.

"It sort of makes you wonder whether it's worth living on a hill," she said.

Register staff writers Michael Coronado, Mayrav Saar and Jonathan Volzke contributed to this report.

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