Thursday, January 16

Earthquake Awakening In Northridge: 20 Years from the Epicenter

On Sunday, January 16, 1994 it was what some call “earthquake weather.” When hot, dry Santa Ana winds scorch the Los Angeles area with temperatures reaching into the 80s by day and plummeting into the 40s at night. Earthquake weather is apocryphal, but those who have lived here believe in it, even vaguely, as there is no other explanation for why the quakes occur.

I was a single mother with a home based business; doing advertising and marketing for regional shopping centers and local businesses. The next day was Martin Luther King Day and my 12 year old daughter would have the day off from school. We had just come home from a mini road trip to Solvang, so she decided to spend the night in my bedroom.

At about 4:31 am (04:30:51 to be exact), I woke up to the sound of my daughter screaming, “Mommy, mommy we are going to die!’ I opened my eyes with a start to see a 32” old school CRT TV (which weighed close to 100 pounds) fly up in the air and crash on to the facing wall. I reached for my glasses, while yelling to my daughter to roll off the bed and stay as close to the bed as possible (a highly debated safety technique called “triangle of life). 

On my way to the floor, outside the window, I saw a pole mounted electric transformer sway at least 3 times at a 40 degree angle until it loudly exploded. I told my daughter not to move and tried to reassure her it would be over in a minute — I while I blindly clawed the floor for my glasses.

There was a loud rumbling, as if a train was tunneling beneath us and the house came alive with sounds of its’ own. The wood frame groaned, pictures and mirrors were falling to the floors and breaking. Crashing of heavy objects could be heard from other rooms.

We held tight, shouting phrases of faith to each other that it will be over soon (for the full 30 seconds or so) until the shaking stopped. What we didn’t know then, was that our home was at the epicenter of the 6.7 magnitude Northridge earthquake. In a panic, we both tried to find our glasses in the pitch black of pre sunrise to no avail. After a few minutes we decided to make a dash into the backyard.

Then, at 4:39 am, a 4.5 aftershock struck. Aftershock is the term used by seismologists to describe the smaller earthquakes that follow the initial one. This was the first of 2,929 aftershocks within the following three weeks through February 6, 1994. It felt like there was one every few minutes. The exact data from CalTech can be seen here and here

We froze on either side of the bed. The noises seemed to be dying down but we were paralyzed with fear. 4:40 am; another aftershock. This time a 4.8 and one minute later, a 4.0. I can only give true magnitudes from the CalTech data, because when you are on top of the quake you experience something you never thought possible. The earth was moving, this isn’t supposed to happen. Combine that with terror and you have a life changing experience.

There was a sliding glass door in my bedroom, leading to the back yard. I guess I didn’t lock it that night because our neighbors, three strapping Cal State Northridge University students, opened the door and yelled to see if we were all right. We weren’t. Neither of us could focus properly, as our glasses became part of the rubble that occupied my bedroom floor. They grabbed us both and pulled us up to run out of the house and on to the street.

Standing up and running was not an easy task. When the ground moves you develop a wobbly type of motion (earthquake) sickness. When you try to move you sway as if the earth is still moving. This has been dubbed by the Japanese as “jishin-yoi” or "earthquake drunk" an unsettling feeling very much like the way some feel when they have stepped off a ship.

We ran, nevertheless, out on to the sidewalk which was beginning to overflow with neighbors in underwear and pajamas and their pets. Just in time for another aftershock.

Looking down the street in pre-dawn light, I could see fires in the distance. There were sounds of explosions and emergency vehicles with sirens blaring. I held my daughter tightly. We hunkered in the street, not knowing what to do or where to go. Friends who worked at the university or the mall stopped in front of our house to be sure we were OK, and then drove off to see how their offices and buildings had fared.
About half a mile west was one of my clients, Northridge Fashion Center and a half mile east was Cal State Northridge. The mall sustained so much damage (a department store and parking structures collapsed) that they could only reopen with half their stores a year and a half later. The University sustained an unimaginable $400 million dollars in damage. They were up and running within months, though, see Cal State Northridge Earthquake Recovery Bulletin.  
After we regained some level of composure by talking to the neighbors, the cold of the night before was making us shiver. I had to go back into the house to get blankets or something. A neighbor went with me, back through the gate and into the bedroom. After I retrieved our glasses, we ventured into the rest of the house to view the damage.

The wall from my bedroom to the living room had been a photo wall, covered with framed pictures for a length of ten feet. There were no photos on the wall now, just a hallway floor stacked with broken frames and shattered glass. The glass crunched under our feet as we walked.

Walking into the living room, it was clear that the furniture had skated across the wood floor. The contents of a bar spilled out and broken bottles had spewed liquor everywhere. Looking up, I saw the mantel had flown off the fireplace. I started to shake, perhaps I was going into shock, and my neighbor wanted us to go back out, but I had to see the kitchen. 

“Seeing” the kitchen was all I could do. I couldn’t go in. The floor was covered with at least of foot of broken everything that had jettisoned out of the upper cupboards and pantry. The oven door was open and my (now almost empty) double-door refrigerator had fallen open and was precariously leaning on the wood dinette table. Its contents joined the cacophony of broken dishes and canned goods on the floor. I had made some ranch dressing from scratch the night before. I guess that bottle launched the furthest as ranch dressing was splattered all over the opposite wall.

I grabbed a portable radio, opened the front door and delivered glasses and blankets to my daughter. Several helicopters appeared, circling our neighborhood, going back and forth to the fires in the east and the mall to the west. Smoke and dust filled the air. We had no real idea of what had happened or what was about to happen. So sitting on the front lawn, I turned on the radio while sirens blared around us.

The news was in full emergency mode. Neighbors told us there was no electricity or phone and that we had no water. There were announcements on the radio to let residents know that “if” you had earthquake insurance (I did), that the insurance companies were setting up tents to help out the insured. I went into the house and got us clothes. We went to survey the damage.

A block away, the corner of Reseda Boulevard and Plummer Street was full of police and fire vehicles. We walked closer — this picture will be in my mind forever — and were struck frozen at the sight of rescue workers puling people from an apartment building. Residents of the first floor were crushed when the second and third stories of the building collapsed upon them. Some of the people coming out were moving, some weren’t.

The next hours, days and weeks are a blur. I know that we got in the car and took charge. Things I can remember?
  •  I walked around the house and took pictures of the damage. 
  • We went to the Allstate Insurance tent and they gave us emergency money. (I no longer have earthquake insurance because after the quake the deductible went up to $200,000).
  • REI was about a mile north. We drove up there for emergency (camping supplies). The ceiling of the store had caved in. The manager stood outside with another employee and a card table. I told him we needed a tent, sleeping bags and water purification kit if possible. He ran into the store and got us everything we needed and more.
  • Looking for food, we drove to the supermarket. Their refrigerators and freezers were not working and they were selling food in front of the store. We bought an entire ham from the deli department (I figured it had plenty of preservatives)
  • There was no water. Period. The Red Cross was taking care of their workers and we bought bottled water from scalpers who drove up from unaffected parts of the city. We paid up to $10 a gallon.
  • When we went back to the house we saw that the half where the dining room and kitchen had fallen off the foundation. I don’t remember the angle, but a ball rolled very quickly.
  • Our back block wall was at an angle and the city had contractors tear it down. We went to the lumber yard and bought chicken wire (hey, no judging) until we could get someone to put up a chain link fence.
  • News crews and their camera people scoured the homes on our block. I stood outside like a carnival barker offering “B-roll” of a wrecked house in trade for bottles of water. We got plenty of water.
  • We camped out in a tent and cooked whatever we ate on a Weber bar-b-Que.  I’ve been a Weber owner ever since. On the other hand I hope I will never camp out again.
  • One of the aftershocks was so strong that, while sleeping, I flew out of a banana lounge chair on to the ground.
  • The local “Northridge Pharmacy” pharmacist owner, Barry Pascal, realized his customers needed their medicine. He set up a table in front of the pharmacy, running in to get needed medicine and giving it to his customers that signed IOUs on a note pad.
  • There was no coffee.
  • Brent’s Deli owner, Ron Pascal, fed hundreds of emergency workers during the many hours after the quake.
  • My clients who were not destroyed needed me to design some “Re-Opening” ads.  I went into my garage (which had been professionally reconstructed as an office) only to find the ceiling had collapsed and monitors had strewn everywhere. I shoveled off a spot. Repositioned the computer (it all still worked – which is why I’m a fan of Sony to
    this day) and cranked out some work.
  • T-shirt vendors became a common sight, selling commemorative “Northridge Earthquake” souvenirs.
  • To defray some of my construction costs, I designed a logo to to go on a coffee mug for the drilling contractor (notice Collier Company in the lower left of the design).
The city engineer crew “green tagged” our house, deeming it safe to live in. But major repairs had to be made. The repairs and interior damage totaled close to $200,000 in the end. We had to retrofit the house.

After repairing the house, (within a year) we moved to another home in Northridge. Prices had plummeted with people almost abandoning their beautiful homes on large lots. We purchased a severely damaged one and with the help of structural engineers, a 90 page engineering report and a great contractor we rebuilt the new house from the ground up. Our home is built on caissons with steel and concrete bored over 30 feet into the ground. This one isn’t going anywhere.

I figure lightening won’t strike twice. I hope.

If you have a Northridge earthquake story - please add it in the comments? I would love to read them.

  • Time: 4:31 am PST 
  • Date: Monday, January 17th, 1994 
  • Magnitude: 6.7 
  • Epicenter: 11.5 miles beneath the San Fernando Valley along a hidden fault. 
  • Aftershocks: 2,929 occurred during the next three weeks. 
  • Deaths: Believed to be as high as 72 
  • Injuries: Approximately 9,000 
  • Damages: estimated at $20 billion. 
  • Damage occurred up to 85 miles from the epicenter 
  • Felt 220 miles away in Las Vegas, Nevada
 © Marsha Collier 2014 - You are welcome to use photos. Please attribute to Marsha Collier and link back to this post.

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