I was in bed with my wife. We’re up in the (Pacific) Palisades. I’ve got a couple of kids in the next room. At 4:31, I was on the floor. By 4:40, we were leaving the house. We’ve gone through a number of earthquakes and we have an earthquake plan. That is to get the hell out of the house and get down to the helicopter hanger and get it airborne.
We left the house, got dressed in the truck and went down Pacific Coast Highway. Right down the street from where I live is where that house at Chautauqua and Pacific Coast Highway came down. Portions of that house were still sliding down. There was no rhyme or reason to where anyone was driving. It was just to avoid landslides, dust and falling boulders.
We got down to Santa Monica Airport and there was no power. I was on two-way communications with KNX-AM radio doing reports. They had lost power so they put a two-way radio up to a microphone inside the booth, and we were able to broadcast. I had all the police and fire radios going on in the truck, so we were able to get the first information.
My kids have several thousand hours in the helicopter. . . . They were sort of born into the news profession, and they helped out listening to radio calls. My daughter, Katie, is 10 and my son, Jamie, is 8. My wife, Marika, was writing down information from the fire department. We were relaying the information to the listeners.
Once we got to the airport, we had another problem. There was no power to raise a 50-foot-wide steel and aluminum door, so we ripped it off with a forklift. All my friends were there. Dan Lunsky, a contractor, had a generator and he also had a (power) saw in case we had to cut down the hanger to the helicopter. Another friend, Bob Clark, from the Santa Monica Outlook, lent assistance. I had people from the Museum of Flying and Super Marine Aviation show up. A limo driver that didn’t even know me came along. We had some cops show up, some firemen show up. Everyone converged at the hanger.
We were up in the air by 5:05, pilot Doug Denoff, my wife and I. There was another station that was up ahead of us, Channel 5, only because they have that early morning news. Doug was going to do the flying, Marika was going to do the shooting, and I was going to do the reporting, coordinating all the frequencies and monitoring police and fire radios.
KNX, being a 50,000-watt radio station, is where you want to report from, since you can hear it from Albuquerque to Hawaii. Simultaneously, we are setting up our microwave feeds for TV. That was downlinked to CBS and then uplinked back on a satellite all throughout the United States. So anything that we were broadcasting was picked up by the networks.
We’re over Santa Monica and we’re diverting right to the area that we’re hearing as the hardest-hit areas. We crossed over the Hollywood Hills and we saw what looked like fog, but we realized it was smoke. In the Hollywood Hills there was a home on fire. Then over to the right we saw two homes that had collapsed. One had slid down the hill and there were people waving at us. I reported the location to the police department.
The scene from the air was surreal. You’re used to seeing the lights of the city, and it looks like a bright jewel. Unfortunately, after the earthquake, there were no lights. It was eerie. Once you crossed over the Santa Monica Mountain range and Hollywood Hills and looked into the west Valley and the Burbank/Glendale areas, it was pitch black, dotted by fires.
It was very strange. We almost got spatial disorientation because you couldn’t see a horizon. There was so much smoke and no visibility that it was difficult to keep the helicopter level. There was enough ambient light from starlight and a little bit of the moon. What really made a difference was a 30 million candle-powered night sun (light). It’s what the police use.
The first thing that we wanted to do was survey the homes that are perched on the cliffs of the canyons. Most withstood the quake but a few didn’t. We went into another area and saw water mains flowing 50 to 60 feet in the air and I realized that there would be a water problem in L.A., a contamination problem. So we reported that, and then the sun began to rise.
There was an office building on Ventura Boulevard that was in flames. There was a gas and water main that (had broken) apart, and there was an explosion that (had) leveled five homes. That was spectacular since it was very dark. This geyser of fire was rising 50 feet into the sky.
When we got into the Newhall area, the sun was really upon us. Looking at the 5-14 intersection, you could see all the damage to the overpass. There a helicopter showed up and picked up victims. Then there was the destruction of that Northridge apartment. It looked like someone had picked up this rectangular section of the apartment house and shoved it down. (And) the Cal State Northridge parking structure was gone.
With dawn, I was able to see the full scope of what was going on. I was able to give more accurate reports. Unlike the Whittier and Coalinga earthquakes where there were pockets of damaged areas next to undamaged areas, here it looked like there was damage everywhere. I thought Santa Monica had been hit pretty hard, but this was a forgotten area because the Valley was hit the hardest.
What a place to be (in the sky). We were immune to the aftershocks and distanced from the danger.
There are three memories I will always remember. One is the actual earthquake at 4:31 and the feeling of helplessness, and seeing the flashes of light as all the transformers were blowing up. The (third) memory was when I saw the Santa Monica Freeway (had) collapsed. . . . I was hovering over that, and I watched a highway patrolman drive over a buckled portion of the freeway and then drive over the edge, on live television.
He wasn’t injured, but after seeing all this tragedy, it made everyone laugh. It was humorous. Here was somebody that was probably suffering from delayed stress that got into his patrol vehicle, drove through his own barrier and drove off the side of the freeway, on live television.
At this point, I was feeling very guilty. All these people had suffered a lot of damage and here we were in the news helicopter immune from it and not really helping anybody. Then the people from Granada Hills Hospital asked us to medivac patients.
It was about four in the afternoon. They couldn’t get an ambulance or the fire department to transport anybody, so they called us.
We have a medical kit aboard the helicopter so we can do ambulance runs. It was an option in the helicopter and I never thought that I would ever use it, but here we were transporting burn victims into UCLA Medical Center. It felt so great to actually do something to help.