MORE EARTHQUAKE STORIES FROM 1994

Above: Northridge apartment building that pancaked onto the bottom floor.

Watching and listening to news about disastrous events like the Southern California earthquake of 1994 or the more recent Hurricane Sandy can be quite heartening. When people are challenged by tragedy, they rise to the occasion. To feel inspired by the indomitable human spirit, read the accounts of everyday heroes who became saviors when it was necessary. We all need these reminders of what is truly important in life–family and friends and the strangers who help us.

After my children knew I was safe after the 1994 California earthquake, they went home to Moorpark to pick up their own mess. I listened to more news about our devastating shake-up. I heard the Newhall Pass Interchange had collapsed again, just as in 1971, and as it turned out, the epicenter of the quake was almost in the same area it had been in ’71. One poignant tragedy concerned an apartment building in Northridge that had collapsed, killing almost everyone in the bottom floor apartments. Sometime later I read about a family who had lived on the bottom floor. The whole family, for some inexplicable reason, had left their apartment that morning to say goodbye to their father before he drove to work sometime after 4 a.m. They were all chatting in the parking lot, safe from harm, when the quake struck and their home and everything in it was totally smashed.

In the days following the quake, I discovered my friends were all particularly lucky. Quite amazing news since the quake had damaged property ($20 billion worth) as far away as 85 miles, and there had been about 60 deaths and 9,000 people injured.

Because of freeway damage, Susan (who owned the house where I was living) was stuck in Santa Clarita with her boyfriend. His apartment hadn’t collapsed but was in complete disarray. The entire kitchen floor was a mess of food (the fridge and all the cabinets had emptied), utensils, plates, glasses, and miscellaneous items, and there was no water or electricity. Unsure whether his building was safe enough, the two of them drove east to Palmdale until Susan could get home, which turned out to be several days later. In the meantime I was a sort of command center to let her sons and father know what was happening. Her father, because he’d suffered a great deal of damage to his place in Sherman Oaks, soon came to live with her for a while.

Pam’s son was stocking shelves in a grocery store when the earth started moving. He made it to the end of an aisle before the lights went out and cans and bottles flew like missiles, all over the place. It was two days before they opened again.

Karen Woods, another friend, was home alone. When her condo started moving, she sprang from bed, ran to the bedroom door and hit her head. She headed to the bathroom to patch herself up and, alas, slipped on the talcum powder, which had spilled all over the floor. Her kitchen floor was full of broken champagne glasses, and a small grandfather clock had hurled itself across her living room.

Dave was living almost at the epicenter and had been asleep on a waterbed. Even though these beds are immensely heavy (mine had stayed steady, for instance), the whole thing lifted up. Later in the day, when he was inspecting a 12-story building for his property management boss, there was a 5.5 aftershock. He was on the top floor and was sure his life was over!

I discovered instincts or gut feelings were important in dire situations. Some sprang out of bed when the quake hit, and others didn’t. My friend Sally stayed safely in bed while a bookshelf toppled and threw books all around the room. When it was light enough and she was able to get up and sort out the books, the book on top of the pile was Where Angels Walk.

One friend revealed later he’d gotten out of bed just in time as a huge TV landed on his bed. Dudley, who was living in Hollywood, told me all the car alarms for blocks around went off and kept blasting for a long time.

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