Twenty-Five Years Ago Tonight

January 16, 1994.

I don’t remember a lot of details about the evening, but no doubt it was very similar to tonight. The kids were all in grade school, none yet over the age of ten. It was a Sunday night, but Monday would have been Martin Luther King Jr Day, so it was probably a school holiday. (To be honest, I would have to go look to see if MLK Day was a LA Unified School District holiday then. That’s a weird thought.)

At that age the kids would have all been in bed by 8:00 or 8:30. For all I know I might have been watching the Australian Open, much like I am tonight. I don’t remember what we had for dinner, or if I did the dishes and loaded the dishwasher, if I was doing laundry that evening, or any other details.

There was no reason to remember any of them. It was just another Sunday night in mid-January.

Until 4:31 AM on Monday morning, January 17, 1994.

I remember jolting awake with the first strong shock. If you’ve lived in earthquake country for any length of time and felt one of the “little” ones we get, you learn to react, even if you’re asleep. I woke up to the shock, immediately knew it was an earthquake, adrenaline pumping, and waited for half a second.

It’s that half second that makes the difference. The majority of the time it’s filled with the sleep-blurred memory of the first shock, but the rest of the quake is just a few seconds of fading jolts. Maybe one or two more decent shakes. Then it’s over, seeming like a minute or two but really only five or six seconds.

That didn’t happen this time.

The shaking didn’t go away, it intensified. Within about five seconds it was like riding a bucking bronco. The floor was bouncing. Books and computer disks and papers and boxes and all sorts of junk was falling onto me from the bookshelves in the room. It was pitch dark as the electricity had gone out within seconds. The noise was incredible, like I was lying just inches from a freight train going by at hundred miles an hour.

I didn’t have time to be scared, I just reacted. I had to get to the kids and Janet.

I was sleeping in the fifth bedroom at the far end of the house. The kids were each in their rooms on the other side of the dining room, kitchen, and front foyer from me. In the pitch blackness I started screaming at the top of my lungs, “GET INTO THE HALLWAY! GET INTO THE HALLWAY! GET INTO THE HALLWAY!” I had no idea if the kids or Janet could hear me, but I was hoping they would remember what to do.

I manged to get out of the bedroom and had a decision to make. They say to get into a doorway, but the bedroom doorway was a bad place to be because there were a couple of file cabinets there and I was afraid those drawers would open up and either block the door, clock me in the head, or both. I managed to get out by feel and then had a choice to go through the kitchen (the shorter, more direct route) or through the dining room.

I could hear things smashing and flying in the kitchen. I remember some training that the local PBS station had done and a warning that was quite clear was to stay out of the kitchen. Drawers would fly open and many sharp objects might be flying about. Lots of glass things would be coming out of cupboards and breaking. Kitchen + earthquake = dangerous. I picked the dining room.

I couldn’t stand to save my life. The floor was bouncing and rippling. The chandelier was swinging and threatening to break loose. Dining table chairs were dancing around. And always, the noise. Partly from the house trying to tear itself apart, partly from me still screaming.

I crawled through the dining room, finally making it onto the carpet in the front foyer. I think I was about halfway across that area, maybe eight feet or so, when the shaking finally stopped. Or at least subsided. I was able to get to my feet, open the hallway door, and get to the kids.

Everyone was safe. Two of the kids were out in the hallway and Janet was coming out of her bedroom. If I remember correctly, one of the girls slept right through it and I had to go wake her up and bring her into the hallway.

The central hallway was the safest, most structurally sound place in the house. I got everyone bedded down there for the moment, then went to grab some clothes, shoes, and a flashlight.

I took a quick tour of the house and yard, looking for gas leaks, critical damage, broken glass, and so on. As I was wandering around outside, neighbors were doing the same and we did a quick comparison of notes. Everyone made sure that we were all okay.

Our neighborhood was lucky. Even though we were less than five miles from the epicenter, I don’t think anyone on our block got “red tagged,” i.e., had their house condemned as unsafe to occupy. There were plenty who were “yellow tagged,” but we escaped even that.

We had a couple of cinder block walls separating our yard from the neighbors that were down. Our water heater had cracked and dumped its hot contents all over the laundry room next to the bedroom where I had been, but only after I had crawled by. That would have been fifty gallons of super hot water that would have been another obstacle to overcome to get out of that room.

We had plenty of stuff dumped off of shelves and out of drawers. The kitchen was a mess and most everything in the refrigerator and freezer was out on the floor, but with the electricity out it was going to spoil quickly anyway.

Of course, electricity, gas, and water were all out. But we didn’t have any gas or water leaks other than the water heater. There was no broken glass. There were plenty of cracks in plaster and brick walls, but no structural damage that would prevent doors or windows from opening or closing.

After a quick survey I went back to Janet and the kids, who of course were scared. They were all great though, never panicked, never got freaked out. The kids wanted to go see what was going on, so after they got dressed I took them around to see what was happening.

Most importantly, we had survived. That PBS documentary on surviving “the big one” pointed out that at this point, assuming you weren’t hurt or had some other critical problem like a fire, you could take a deep breath and relax a bit. For the average person, you had survived what was statistically likely to be the most terrifying, dangerous natural disaster event of your life.

Now you just had to deal with the aftermath.

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Filed under Castle Willett, Disasters, Los Angeles

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