My son had just fallen to sleep and I was dozing when the earthquake hit, hurling my cot sideways just as a big wall clock crashed to the floor, spraying glass shards in every corner of our room at St. Johns Hospital and Health Center in Santa Monica.
Andrew, my 10-year-old, had been admitted to St. Johns Sunday night in the grip of a severe asthma attack. But the medical emergency paled compared to our immediate predicament.
One wall of the room had splintered under the wallpaper. Outside our third-story window, an inch-wide fissure had opened in the exterior stucco. The building continued to jiggle ominously after the main quake passed, all of this in total darkness and accompanied by the alarms of battery-powered medical apparatus sounding through the hospital corridor.
My only thought was to get Andrew out of there. I flew to his bed, having managed to find his sneakers, and began jamming them on his feet. “Don’t move, sweetie, don’t move,” I kept repeating, fearful that in his terror he would leap out of the bed onto the broken glass.
Then it dawned on me that he couldn’t, nor could I carry him out to safety. Andrew was tethered to an intravenous pole that had gotten wedged between his bed, the wall and a heavy night table. I frantically searched for a way to disconnect him, but the only light came from a flashing digital readout on the computer that measured the drugs dripping into Andrew’s veins.
Just then, one of the night-shift nurses charged into our room, picking her way through the debris by the fragile beam of a flashlight. “Are you hurt?” she cried. “Are you all right?”
“Get these IVs out of him!” I yelled. We locked gazes for an instant, wordlessly acknowledging the craziness of the situation. A mother was ordering a nurse to discontinue treatment ordered by a doctor. But the earthquake had made business as usual impossible. “You’re right,” she murmured, and quickly unhooked Andrew from the tubes.
Still with the catheter needle stuck in his arm, Andrew sprinted to the doorway and crouched as he had been taught in school. I found a sweat shirt to put over his pajamas, and we began to feel our way down the darkened hallway.
Plaster rubble was everywhere. The nurses station was a shambles, with a big thing that looked like a portable X-ray machine toppled on its side, and patient files and supplies jumbled all over the floor. We turned the corner and ran into a woman clutching her week-old son, John.
“Are you leaving?” asked the woman whose name I later learned was Karen. “What should I do?”
The skeleton crew of night nurses was frantically trying to find and tend to patients too sick or feeble to get out on their own. “Mothers!” someone yelled. “Do what you have to do!”
“Come with us,” I said to Karen. Auxiliary lights were beginning to come on in the hospital, and a security guard appeared to guide us to the nearest stairwell.
“Here, take these,” said a nurse, handing us an armload of sheets and towels to wrap around Karen’s baby.
Andrew was starting to cough. He had been absolutely silent until now, hollow-eyed with shock. But the enclosed stairwell we had entered was thick with plaster dust, an irritant his fragile lungs could not tolerate. I was desperate to get him out into the open air, but the darkness and debris in the stairwell forced us to descend almost at a crawl.
Finally we were outside, though the number of cracks in the hospital’s exterior and chunks of debris in the courtyard convinced us to move quickly onward, away from any building parts that might be dislodged in an aftershock.
Our final camp was the center of a nearly deserted visitors parking lot, where we greeted the dawn like I hope never to greet one again: keeping our sons warm in a tent of hospital linen while sirens wailed throughout the darkened city.