Calif. woman's death leads to removal of Christo art


LEBEC, Calif. -- Crews struggled in high winds yesterday to dismantle Christo's giant umbrellas after the artist ordered his bicontinental project to end four days early because of the death of a visitor who was crushed by an uprooted umbrella.

About 7,000 disappointed spectators were met by rows of furled umbrellas, billowing like golden ghosts that disappeared into the fog shrouding the mountaintops here, about 60 miles north of Los Angeles. Hundreds of other umbrellas had been torn or toppled by wind gusts before workers could crank them shut.

In nearby Gorman, the California Highway Patrol closed two popular viewing sites because many sightseers were not heeding warnings to stay away from the umbrellas and were getting in the way of crews. Kern County sheriffs deputies also arrested two people for trespassing on private property.

"It's sad to see so many are broken. I think Christo will be heartbroken when he sees this," said Cindy Olson, of Westlake Village.

Unusually strong winds Saturday uprooted one of the 488-pound umbrellas, crushing Lori Keevil-Mathews, 34, an insurance agent from Camarillo, Calif., against a boulder.

In a twist on the tragedy, Keevil-Mathews's husband, Michael, said yesterday that his wife had a rare disease of the adrenal glands and only had about 10 years to live.

Christo officials, meanwhile, puzzled over what went wrong. Christo himself was still in Japan, where he had been touring the Japanese portion of the exhibit. Colleagues said that Christo, who ordered the Japanese umbrellas closed as well, would return to California this afternoon.

"It is just such a shame it had to end like this," said Vince Davenport, head of field operations for the project.

Outside, on the rugged hills, small clumps of paid workers fought gale force winds, biting cold and curious crowds as they went from site to site to try to close the 1,760 umbrellas.

In contrast to the opening day's euphoria among workers -- many of them self-professed Christo groupies who took leaves from far better-paying jobs -- closing day was grim.

Each umbrella had to be hand-cranked, and some workers were literally thrown from the cranks as winds rushed in under the umbrellas' folds.

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