Northridge quake's cataclysmic effect

We heard it before we felt it.

A roaring sound jolted us awake a second or so before the Northridge earthquake violently shook our house at 4:31 a.m. It was Jan. 17, 1994.


We live in Woodland Hills, 51/2 miles from the earthquake's epicenter — which actually was in Reseda, not Northridge. And the ripple effects from that morning 20 years ago still haunt us.


Northridge earthquake: An article in the Jan. 17 Section A reflecting on the Northridge earthquake 20 years earlier said neighbors had identified a Sherman Oaks couple killed in the collapse of their home as Mark Yupp and his fiancee, Kerry. Their names were Marc Yobs and Karen Osterholt. —

Once the shaking started it lasted only 25 or 30 seconds, although I thought it wouldn't stop before the whole house shook apart. But the half-minute of a magnitude 6.7 temblor was enough to overturn furniture, shatter patio doors, empty kitchen dish shelves and spill food from the refrigerator.

We screamed to our 3-year-old twins sleeping down the hall to stay in their beds. Out a window I could see bright flashes as electrical transformers down the hill shorted out.

I looked for my shoes, which I'd left next to the bed the evening before. They were gone — tossed somewhere in the darkness.

I ran in my bare feet to the kids' room, crunching on glass from framed hallway posters that had been thrown off the wall and smashed to the floor.

The kids were sitting bolt-upright in their beds, frozen in fear. I told them to stay where they were until we came back to get them.

I made my way to the kitchen to hunt for a flashlight. I stumbled over several basketball-size rocks that had been ripped from a stone fireplace wall that separated the living room and dining area. I found a flashlight that worked and picked my way back to our bedroom.

We threw on clothes and decided to carry the twins to one of our cars parked out front before any aftershocks could hit. But neither of us could find our car keys: they'd been shaken off bedroom dressers and had disappeared beneath other items tossed to the floor. We finally found one set buried under some books and a basket of coins and ran to the kids' room.

It was still dark outside when we piled them in the car. Figuring the flashlight's batteries would soon fail, I dug a Coleman lantern from some camping gear piled in the garage. Although I could hear fuel sloshing around in the lantern, it wouldn't ignite. The rubber pump gasket had shrunk from years of nonuse.

The San Andreas Fault had finally snapped, I thought. If the shaking was this bad in Woodland Hills, was downtown Los Angeles in ruins? Was the newspaper building still standing? Only when I flipped on the car radio did I realize that the San Fernando Valley might have taken the brunt of the quake.

As dawn gradually arrived, the extent of the damage came into view.

Large rocks from the chimney had toppled from the roof and littered both the front and back yards. The rear sliding doors were smashed and the concrete slab beneath the slate patio out back was badly cracked.


Nearly every wall in the house was cracked. The kitchen was strewn with broken plates, cups and glasses and food hurled from the refrigerator. Artwork on an east-facing wall in the living room remained on their hooks, but were tilted at the same off-center angle.

The kids stayed in the car as we gathered clothing and other items that my wife could take when she went looking for relatives who could take them in.

I eventually scrounged up some plywood and nailed it over the shattered patio doors. Then I went looking for a pay phone to call the downtown newsroom — cellphones were uncommon then and our home phone had no dial tone.

As I headed toward a canyon top in Sherman Oaks where an editor said there had been heavy damage, I worried how we were going to dig ourselves out of the this mess. We didn't have earthquake insurance and it was beginning to dawn on me how extensive the damage to our home had been. Before long, I would realize that I'd been luckier than many.

When I pulled onto the cul-de-sac in Sherman Oaks, with sweeping views of the valley below, I saw a house that had collapsed. Inside, 31-year-old entertainment industry executive Mark Yupp and his 32-year-old fiancee, Kerry, had been killed as they slept.

Neighbors didn't know Kerry's last name, but said they had frantically dug through the debris in hopes of rescuing the couple from the rubble that slid down the hill. The pair's two cars, a Porsche and a BMW, were buried in the pile.

I found another pay phone and called in my story and then made my way home to pack.

About 60 people had been killed in the Northridge quake. The damage in our neighborhood was worse than I initially thought. The house next door was badly damaged and was eventually rebuilt. Another up the hill also had to be demolished. And another was just gone.

All that kept me from feeling sorry about our situation as we repaired our small house over the next 15 months.

Without earthquake insurance, we spent more than $100,000 to get the job going. We have insurance now, since I've calculated that damaging quakes seem to strike every 20 to 22 years. I pay attention since I lived through — and reported and photographed — the 1971 Sylmar earthquake.

It took about nine months to find a contractor to help with our repairs and took nearly that long to arrange a Small Business Administration loan and to tap our savings to pay for the repairs.

Our very kind contractor, Mike O'Connell, came up with a solution that replaced our collapsed stone wall between the living room and kitchen with an airy, open look and used the fireplace and chimney rocks to create decorative borders on our outdoor planters.

We ran out of repair money before O'Connell could get around to replacing the buckled back patio, however. So I re-cemented the slabs myself as best I could.

But the flagstones are starting to pop loose again and it appears the patio needs to be rebuilt. Twenty years later, and we're still living with the repercussions of the Northridge quake.