Quake Memories : Indelible Images of Sudden Upheaval
We asked our readers to share, in their own words, their memories of the Northridge earthquake. The response has been tremendous. More than 400 readers responded, sharing everything from poems to one-line letters to essays thousands of words long. Clearly, the act of writing was a cathartic experience.
Over the next several days we will print excepts from these contributions. Some have been edited for length or clarity. For our “Voices” section, we have plucked memorable lines from yet more of the letters.
Daniel was being very fussy that night, and at about 2 a.m. my wife went to his bedroom and brought him into ours for the night. Usually when he would sleep in our room, we would put Daniel into a small two-foot-high portable crib that we placed to the side of our bed, but for some reason, Debbie elected to have him sleep between us that night.
When the quake hit at 4:31, my wife and I held onto Daniel for dear life and rode out the shaking in bed; my wife gave out a blood-curdling scream, while I had the type of voiceless yell that I previously experienced only on the steepest slope of a roller coaster. Daniel was crying and upset only because his sound sleep had been interrupted by the horrible noise somebody was making.
When the one minute of total panic had subsided, I was struck by the total darkness of the room. As my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, I will never forget the sight of our five-foot-tall, four-drawer oak dresser, toppled onto its side precisely where we would have put Daniel in his portable crib. He surely would have been killed, had we placed him where he had in the past.
Most of all, I remember how on that day my power to protect my children was stripped away. Never again will I be able to assure my son that everything will be all right, that he will be safe--he knows it and I know it. I feel like the wizard in “The Wizard of Oz” when the curtain was pulled away, revealing just an ordinary little man.
I now feel the weight of every building I enter, judging my chances for survival, and other times my hands shake or my heart jumps. They say time heals all wounds, but I guess one year just hasn’t been long enough for me.
HELEN CHARLES Burbank *
Los Angeles has had its share of problems recently. It takes a strong stomach and maybe some twisted sense of adventure to live here during the so-called “four seasons"--fires, flood, riot and earthquake (and a bad economy for good measure). And if the quake wasn’t enough, there were the thousands of aftershocks, many strong enough to serve as a constant reminder of the initial terror all over again.
What is strange about this scenario is that I find myself defending living in Los Angeles, a place that I constantly accuse of lacking in camaraderie among its residents and an independence more rooted in selfishness and material values than a communal spirit. The typical stereotype seemed to apply more often than not. . . . It was a place generally devoid of a soul , something hard to describe but always recognizable in my beloved Philly.
Los Angeles proved something to me during this crises. Once the walls came down (literally) the people of this city were out in the streets, checking on neighbors they hardly knew, helping one another with supplies and even being courteous to one another while driving through intersections without traffic lights. And in the more serious settings where buildings had collapsed there were the miracle rescues and gallant attempts from not only firefighters but neighbors alike.
The whole emergency response system was nothing short of astounding. The city was virtually back in operation the next day even though many businesses just began to rise from the ashes . . .
MICHAEL PARENTE Westlake Village *
What’s the matter with this boy! Doesn’t he know that it’s the middle of the night? To jump into our bed so unexpectedly and violently. He needs to be punished. But what is that noise? Furniture falling over, dishes and glasses smashing on the floor. Why is he crying, “Daddy, help me, I’m caught in my room . . .”
Is this the feared “Big One”? What kind of evil forces do I feel beneath us? Is this a mean-spirited force of demons, I whisper fearfully, while trying to identify the horrific shaking event which has our entire house moaning.
In the closet, we hold hands, fearfully, prayerfully, and ask God for help in this moment of terror. When it stops momentarily, I utter, “Thank God, thank God.” To which my son, Bobby, with an incredulous look on his face, says, “Are you kidding Dad, for what? This disaster!”
Momentarily we change places. He, the father. Me, the boy. He uses reason and argument. I find solace in childhood emotion. It was never this way before Jan. 17, 1994, at 4:31 a.m. Now it is.
Will we ever be the same?
ROBERT J. FRASCO Bell Canyon *
On the Jan. 17 morning of the earthquake Martha was awake a little earlier than usual. Thinking that as long as she was awake she might as well do something constructive, Martha decided to take a shower and wash her hair.
Very soon Martha found herself being bounced from one tile wall to another, suffering two cracked ribs and numerous rather colorful bruises.
“No one even asked me whether I had been hurt,” complained an indignant Martha. “All anyone wanted to know was, ‘What in hell were you doing in the shower at 4:31 in the morning?’ ”
BETTY WILKINSON (Martha’s sister)
It is not difficult for me to write of my worst indelible memory from the Jan. 17, 1994, Northridge earthquake. In the darkness of the early morning hours, my wife and daughters safe with neighbors on the front lawn, I searched for the stray dog that had become a member of our family months earlier.
I feared that the dog, LaLa, whose favorite sleeping area was covered by hundreds of fallen books, had perished. The memory I hold is not of finding our loving pet two hours later, crouched in the yard and shaking, but the joy and relief on the faces and in the voices of my daughters as I walked the dog to where they huddled.
For a brief moment, amid all that shaking and loss, there was the realization that all would be fine, our family was together again.
DAVID APPLETON Northridge *
There are many images easily recalled. Those common threads of experience wove us into a fabric that bound us together and enabled us to survive. There were many stories of courage, valor and selflessness. There were also those about price gouging and looting. There were the reflections of a populace filled with fear and confusion as well as bravery and strength.
I did not get to thank the heroes who crossed my path. I do so now. I applaud them for the hope and faith they gave us, as well as comfort. They were the bright light through a dark dawn and they gave us the strength to strive for a brighter tomorrow.
I have been asked if I would stay in California. My answer? Yes, Yes, Yes!!! It has been said that “Home is where the heart is.” My heart is here, and here I shall stay, home.
It is amazing what broke and what survived. A delicate miniature crystal piece, given to me by my husband, was found intact as was my Lladro bear, the last gift I ever received from my father. To find such treasures among the ruins was indeed a bittersweet joy.
The breakage is gone now. However, each time we find an occasional piece of glass I am reminded that life, like our many possessions, is indeed fragile. The Northridge quake was the great common denominator for everyone in the Valley.
Non-Valley residents sometimes ask, “Aren’t you over that quake yet?” Over it? Clearly, they don’t understand. The quake is a part of our history. We will never be over it--but we will prosper again. You can count on it.
JOYCE L. STILLWELL Van Nuys