With of all the recent tragic earthquakes of the past 18 months, many have asked me to relate a personal account I wrote right after the 1/17/94 6.8 Northridge California earthquake. We lived about 4 miles from the epicenter. The following text is my account of those terrifying minutes, hours and days.
January 17, 1994
I’m not sure who will read this but I just need to try and capture the feelings of this one day before too much time passes. So, if my voices, persons, tenses or order of events are not consistent sorry. This is / was a confusing time so any variances in writing are probably fitting anyway.
The Players- Dave, Debbie, Meredith, and Lycia (lee-sha) (Meredith’s friend), and Butterscotch (the cat).
1:25 a.m. (all tines are PST)
Nature called so I got up to answer. While I was up I took some pain medication to help me go back to sleep. After all, it had only been 5 days since my eye surgery to repair a detached retina in my right eye. To replace the fluid lost in my eye the doctor injected a gaseous bubble to hold everything in place.
However to make sure the eye healed correctly with the bubble, I had to hang my head downward for two hours each morning and two hours each evening and while I slept at night. With my arthritis, it is very difficult to sleep in this position so chemical aid was helpful in getting some sleep. We could all sleep in, with me off from work because of my eye, Debbie was still job hunting, and the girls were not back in school yet.
We knew immediately what was happening though we had been sound asleep……..
It had been less than 18 months since the pair of Landers (7.4) and Big Bear (6.6) quakes. This was different though. In the Landers quake the house shook violently, the lights flickered, but there was no damage in Canoga Park or our house. Only one picture fell. This WAS different. It felt as if the whole house was moving up and down and back and forth. The noise was deafening. The groan of the wood frame of the house, the crashing sound of THINGS- though we knew not what. The closet doors slammed open and the clothes on the racks came crashing down.
Debbie and I could hear the girls yelling in Meredith’s bedroom. The shaking kept going on and on. I could hear a primal scream nearby. I looked but it wasn’t Debbie. It was then I realized the primal scream was coming from me. Debbie grabbed me and said – “ARNIE (my first name is Arnold) , calm down.”
At some point we could tell it was ending. The power had gone off so it was dark and eerily quiet. “THAT WAS THE BIG ONE!” I said. Debbie agreed at that point. I also exclaimed, “We are getting the hell out of California!!” There was the sound of car alarms outside that sounded as if we were out there as well.
We could hear police / emergency vehicle sirens in the distance. I sat up on the edge of the bed. I could not find my glasses!! They had been thrown three feet from the night stand. The ground was still moving as if we were on the water in a boat – gently rocking and swaying. Debbie told me to stay put, since I couldn’t see very well anyway, and she went to get the girls. As she felt her way down the hallway she was stopped
Suddenly – a door was in her way. “There is not supposed to be a door here”, she later said in recounting the feeling to me. The quake had opened all the closet doors. She got the girls’ room and stood in the doorway.
Then we felt it start again!!
I yelled, “Hold on!” Debbie told the girls to stay in the bed and wait for it to die down. The earth shook the rest of the day about every five minutes or so. We had over 150 quakes that day alone that registered over 3.0 in magnitude.
I look back in amazement, but not surprise, at what happened next. Debbie jumped into a take charge mode and started getting everything we would need and centrally located in our bedroom. She had found flashlights, water, snacks, and supplies. She placed everything in a clothes hamper. She had been so strong throughout my eye surgery (another short story itself) that it was hard to believe she had anything left for this.
The girls had made a venture through the rest of the house after they put shoes on to protect their feet. I got dressed and went to the bathroom. It was a mess. Everything in the medicine cabinet was in the sink, on the floor, or in drawers that had thrown themselves open.
We had NO water.
At some point they guided me through the rest of the house. The first room I saw was the office. The bookshelf had fallen forward. Both computer monitors had fallen off the desk. It was impossible to get to the other side of the room. One thing we noticed was that every window in the house (the sliding kind) had opened though they had been locked.
The main bathroom was in worse shape than ours. The top to the toilet had been thrown off and broke into two pieces. Water had spilled out of the tank. The glass shower door, although unbroken, had come off track and fell into the tub.
The living room had a mixture of destruction and normalcy. Everything on a wall came down. A wooden battery operated clock my sister had given us did not fall off the fireplace but stopped at 4:31. Plants had fallen and dirt was everywhere. The entertainment center with the TV and VCR had not moved. The stereo had fallen forward, the glass doors popped off but did not shatter.
The kitchen had broken glasses all over. Cabinets had opened and emptied. The battery operated clock in the kitchen was still on the wall, but the battery had popped out
and the clock read 4:31.
We opened the door leading from the kitchen to the attached garage. The Dodge Dynasty had moved at least three inches and wedged underneath a workbench. A stack of shelves had fallen on our New Yorker and what looked like thirty five years of dust was all over everything. A cross beam in the ceiling to the garage had snapped in two.
Early reports pegged the quake at a 6.6 magnitude (later modified to 6.8). 6.6!!! it felt more like 66.6!!!(I know, there is no such thing.) While this was the same magnitude as the Big Bear quake, Big Bear is 100 miles from Chatsworth and the epicenter for the Northridge quake was about 4-5 miles from our house.
It was somewhere around this time we decided to go outside. We went to open the front screen door but the house had shifted and jammed the door. For a quick second I panicked. I think it was 12 year old Meredith who gave it a shove open. It was still dark and some neighbors had gathered at the end of our driveway around a small 5 inch TV.
Our next door neighbor had cut his head during the quake so Debbie got some bandages and fixed him up. He went with her to go check our gas main to see if it was leaking( it wasn’t), The girls went down the street to check on ‘TODD’ a boy they knew. So here I am, outside in the dark, standing around this television with people I’ve never spoken to before. Anyone who knows what a great small talker I am (not) knows what a stellar moment in history this was.
One of the neighbors asked if I hurt my eye (still patched) in the quake. In a lame attempt at humor I said, “No, I had surgery for a detached retina last Wednesday and now this! Ha, Ha!” Then again there was silence. Outside you can still feel the earth move however, it doesn’t seem so bad. I guess since you can’t hear rattling and creaking of the house it diminishes the effect on the senses.
With Debbie and the girls gathered together again we went back inside and I watched my little 1&1/2 inch TV I got for Christmas.
There was something comforting in the sunrise. Our security of sleep and the nighttime had been violated. We spent some more time outside and our neighbors helped us get the cars out of the garage.
Meredith and I tried to go back to sleep and Debbie and Lycia cleaned up the kitchen. The earth continued to move every few minutes.
All of us had laid down when we heard some voices outside and the doorbell rang. It was Lycia’s parents, two brothers, and two dogs. The road in front of their Reseda house had buckled open and broke a natural gas main. The authorities evacuated the area so they had to leave their house. They had suffered much worse damage being practically on the epicenter.
Though we had a houseful, it was nice not being alone. We felt isolated with no phones and we couldn’t go anywhere.
At some point around this time we boiled some water to make instant coffee. Lycia’s father and I had some cereal. We had not smelled a gas leak so our range still worked and we could cook if we wanted.
We knew that family would have heard about the quake so we started trying to make a phone call back to Illinois but to no success. The phones were on what they called ‘slow dial-tone’. Because the lines were crowded, we would have to wait several minutes for a dial tone. Even when we would get a dial tone the call would either be busy or revert back to the dial tone. We kept trying all day taking turns.
As part of my recovery from eye surgery I was supposed to lay my head down for two hours in the morning and afternoon. I sat on the loveseat leaning towards the arm with my head down. Always, just as I would drift off to sleep, the earth would roll. Would it ever stop?
Lycia’s father and brothers had gone back to their house to see if they could return. The gas leak had been stopped, but they still had no utilities. They brought some frozen chicken breasts back and other food. I fired up the Weber, eye patch and all, and tried to get supper cooked before the sun went down. We still had no electricity. I remember a kind of fear as they drove away, it was just the three of us now and it was dark.
Debbie’s friend, Carolyn from Ventura, got through to us by phone around 4:30 p.m. Debbie asked her to try to reach her brother Dave in Escondido so he could call all back in Illinois. She was able to get through.
When the quake hit and the power went off the air filter in the goldfish tank seemed to back up. The water became very murky. Chubs, the goldfish, had been active but obviously slowing down during the day. By this time he was floating at the top and barely moving. We decided to use some of our remaining bottled water and transfer him to a smaller bowl. He was lifeless. Once every15 seconds or so his mouth would move. It looked like Chubs would become a quake statistic.
Meredith was trying the phone and got through to my sister, Judy. I was so excited and relieved I went running barefoot into the kitchen to pick up the phone. I stepped on a sliver of glass.
It was so comforting to hear someone from my family. While I talked to Judy I would shine the flashlight at Chubs to try to get some response. Finally near the end of the conversation he opened his mouth and moved slightly. A little after10 p.m. we got our power back so Debbie and I hurried to clean the tank and put fresh water in. We hooked up the air filter and put him back in. He dropped to the bottom and just sort of sat there. We fully expected him to be dead the next day, but I’m pleased to report about halfway through the 18th he came out of shock and started swimming around!!!
Earthquake related facts:
We had to boil our water, which returned on Thursday the 20th for about 10 days
To flush the toilet we had to get buckets of water from the neighbor’s pool and pour it down the bowl
As of 3/20/94 we have had over 5,000 aftershocks.
The cinder block walls between the properties had come tumbling down.
The contractor’s estimate to fix the wall was $15,000.
34,500 homes/apartments were destroyed or made uninhabitable..
About six weeks after the main jolt Debbie took me on a drive around the San Fernando Valley. With my eye surgery and all I had only been out of the house to go to work or the doctor’s office and not really seen the damage except on TV.
It was the saddest trip I’ve ever taken. House after house had damage of some sort. Either fallen chimneys or block walls or both. Northridge Mall looked as if it had been bombed. City block after city block of apartment buildings in Northridge were boarded up with red signs on the front. Where were these people living now?
Then we saw the apartment complex called Northridge Meadows where the 16 people had been crushed to death. I don’t think words can describe the feeling when you look at a two story building that used to be three stories. To make matters worse it has become a tourist attraction. There were dozens of people walking around taking pictures. There was a vendor on the corner selling ‘I survived the Northridge quake’ T-shirts.
Yes, driving around made me sad. But it also made me realize that despite all we had been through….
We were the lucky ones.