Los Angeles Police Officers Angelito Angeles and Henry Izzo spent a harrowing, pre-dawn hour on Jan. 17, 1994, at the Northridge Meadows and an adjacent apartment building, pulling residents from the collapsed complexes.
Their earthquake rescues earned them a nomination for the LAPD's medal of valor, and the officers were hailed as heroes in the department. But when Gov. Pete Wilson told the story to the people of California, one important part was left out--Officer Angelito Angeles.
Wilson praised Izzo's heroism in his State of the State address, calling him "the first officer to arrive at the horrifying scene of the collapsed Northridge Meadows apartment complex." But he made no mention of the officer at Izzo's side.
While Izzo, 45, and his wife, Rosalita, were being wined and dined in Sacramento as guests of honor the day of the speech, Angeles was doing paperwork at the LAPD's Devonshire station and feeling overlooked.
"We didn't do it for the recognition," said Angeles, 30. "But you give credit where credit's due."
Wilson spokesman Paul Kranhold said the governor hadn't meant to slight Angeles, but the LAPD had highlighted Izzo's role, and Wilson was particularly taken by the story of the 25-year veteran dashing into the doomed apartment building.
"There were a lot of heroes, and we don't want to leave any out," but "it was a long speech," Kranhold said.
Izzo said Angeles should have been included in the festivities. "We were together the entire time," Izzo said. "We never split up once."
The two were on patrol that night, driving west on Chatsworth Street when the ground rumbled at 4:31 a.m.
"My first thought was: 'Wife!' " Angeles recalled. They immediately headed toward the Angeleses' apartment in the 9600 block of Reseda Boulevard. Driving through Northridge, their headlights shone on a crowd of dazed people, many still in their underwear and stumbling in shock, who suddenly materialized in the streets.
A knot of these people, who reminded Angeles of zombies from the movie "Night of the Living Dead," were gathered near Angeles' apartment building. Tracey Angeles, herself an LAPD detective, had been awakened by a bookshelf falling on her, and was then struggling with the door of her damaged apartment. The two officers bolted into the Matador apartment building and helped her out and into her car.
She sped off for the Devonshire station as the officers heard screams from across the street. A group of pedestrians gathered around Izzo and Angeles, and began tugging on their sleeves, pointing across the street to two buildings.
"Those people need your help," they said.
Residents of the two complexes--The North Ridge and Northridge Meadows Apartments--were standing at their shattered windows and cracked balconies, crying for help. With only their flashlights to illuminate the dust-filled darkness, Izzo and Angeles squeezed through a hole in the twisted gate to The North Ridge and crawled under a concrete arch that trembled with every aftershock.
They went through the building, and Angeles, a martial arts expert, kicked down doors that had jammed shut. Grabbing the dazed residents who emerged, the officers hustled them outside through the buckling concrete arch.
Both men were startled by how oblivious some of the quake-shocked tenants were to their surroundings. One man stumbled out of his apartment, stared at Angeles, then nonchalantly lit a cigarette.
"Hey!" cried Angeles. "Put that out! What if there's gas?!"
"Oh," the man said as he extinguished the cigarette.
After someone told the officers that the people next door, in the Northridge Meadows, also needed help, they walked up to the shattered windows of ground-level apartments and began to coax residents out.
Izzo reached an apartment where an old man was standing next to his bed, staring blankly out of his shattered window. "Come on!" Izzo yelled.
The man kept staring, then his wife abruptly sat up in bed, and also stared at Izzo.
Suddenly, Izzo understood their confusion. "He went to sleep on the second story, and now I'm looking at him eye level," he recalled. "He doesn't understand how I can be looking at him from the ground."
It was then that the horror dawned on Izzo: The building had collapsed--he was not looking into first floor windows, but those on the second floor. Hidden beneath it was another floor of apartments that had pancaked onto its residents.
Angeles squatted down, shining his flashlight at what he had thought was the Meadows' foundation. "Henry," he said, "there are people down here."
The officers began shouting to the residents trapped under the building. All they heard in reply were moans.
Then their radios squawked, ordering them back to the station. Reasoning that without more equipment they could not help the trapped residents, Izzo and Angeles returned to the station. They worked until midafternoon, as others took over the rescue work at Northridge Meadows, and then slept in the station's jail, which had been converted into a makeshift dormitory.
The moans of those trapped residents still haunt the officers--16 Northridge Meadows residents died that night. "It was such a helpless feeling," Izzo said mournfully. His night of heroism "wasn't a (career) highlight. Working the Olympics was a highlight, because then everyone was smiling and happy."
Still, it got him to a place of honor in Sacramento, and he was dazzled by the attention paid to him there.
"Policemen are not usually honored in this way. It was really something," Izzo said. But the snub of his partner left a bitter taste in Izzo's mouth.
"A partnership's a real special thing," he said. "If you get in trouble, you get in trouble together, and if you get recognized, you should get recognized together."