Alone at Ground Zero
The Northridge earthquake offered a brief but chilling glimpse of the end of the world
By Kevin Uhrich 01/16/2014
Deciding to avoid arguing with my girlfriend over what I can’t remember anymore, I left our little apartment near the corner of Woodman Avenue and Ventura Boulevard in trendy Sherman Oaks to chill out at a friend’s place in nearby North Hollywood the night of Jan. 16, 1994.
I ended up watching TV with my buddy, then falling asleep on his couch, which he didn’t mind. Then, the next thing both of us knew we were awakened by what sounded like a bomb exploding.
I was thrown off the couch, ending up face down on the floor of the darkened living room as the earth shook violently for what seemed like an eternity. I was convinced the aging apartment complex on Aqua Vista Street was going to collapse on top of us.
I grabbed a pillow from the couch, covered my head with it and crawled under the coffee table until the shaking stopped after 20 seconds or more. The sound of the earth moving was so loud that calls out to my friend in his bedroom could not be heard by him over the din created by all the tectonic shifting.
After things settled down, I checked on my pal, who was OK, all things considered. I then threw on my jacket and ran out to the car, which was parked on the street, not in an underground parking lot, where it might have been crushed. I was lucky in that respect, but I was low on gas, meaning, with nearby filling stations likely closed, every move I made that night had to be worth it.
My first thoughts should have been about getting to work in Pasadena. But they weren’t. They were about my girlfriend. Was she OK? The phones were down, and there were no cell phones back then. I decided to drive west along Ventura Boulevard, from Vineland Avenue, back to my own apartment to find out what was going on.
Once on the darkened street, I was confronted by an unbelievable sight: A number of storefront windows near the corner of Ventura and Laurel Canyon were shattered, with broken glass strewn along the sidewalks and gutters. Alarms and car horns filled the night, power lines further down the street had fallen, lights were out, portions of the street had buckled, and underground mains ruptured. A broken fire hydrant shot torrents of water high into the air.
I was a reporter with the Pasadena Star-News in those days and was actually in the creaky old building at Oakland Avenue and Colorado Boulevard the morning the magnitude 5.6 Sierra Madre quake hit in 1991. The then-more than 60-year-old four-story structure swayed back and forth, and a few windows broke in the commotion, all of which was pretty unsettling.
According to the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC), a division of Geological and Planetary Sciences at Caltech, the Sierra Madre quake, which was relatively small, caused no surface ruptures but did trigger rockslides that blocked some mountain roads. All told, that quake was responsible for roughly $40 million in property damage in the San Gabriel Valley. Two people died, one in Arcadia. Another person in Glendale died of a heart attack, which authorities attributed to the temblor, and at least 100 people were injured, none seriously, according to SCRC.
But that was nothing compared to the surreal devastation created by the magnitude 6.7 Northridge earthquake.
Being so early — just after 4:30 the following morning — I was one of very few people outdoors at the time. I had the street all to myself. Like a scene from a sci-fi movie, it appeared as though parts of Studio City and Sherman Oaks had just been bombed from the air and I was the only person to survive the strafing.
I stopped my ’87 Oldsmobile Brougham in the middle of Ventura Boulevard, got out with the motor running and looked around in utter disbelief. We would eventually learn that, according to various sources, between 57 and 72 people had been killed, with FEMA estimating $25 billion in damage done by the early-morning temblor.
In the end, more than 7, 000 people were injured, 20,000 people were left homeless and more than 40,000 buildings were damaged in Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange and San Bernardino counties, according to the US Geological Survey. USGS concluded that “maximum intensities” of the quake were observed in and near Northridge and Sherman Oaks. Lesser but still significant damage occurred in Fillmore and Simi Valley (both in Ventura County), Glendale, Santa Clarita, Santa Monica, and in western and central Los Angeles, the USGS reported. Tremors could be felt as far away as Ensenada, Mexico, and Utah to the east.
In the time between the Sierra Madre and the Northridge events, there were four major quakes registering above magnitude 5. The biggest of the four were the magnitude 7.2 Cape Mendocino earthquake of April 1992, and in June of that year the magnitude 7.3 Landers quake, which killed three people.
Since Northridge, there have been 20 major quakes, with two registering magnitude 7 or greater. Four of those temblors were magnitude 6 or greater, and eight that were greater than magnitude 5. Remarkably, all of that shaking caused only five deaths; two following the magnitude 6.5 San Simeon quake of December 2003 and three as a result of the magnitude 7.2 quake, which hit northern Baja California in April 2010.
LA hadn’t seen anything like the Northridge quake since the magnitude 6.6 San Fernando Earthquake of 1971, which claimed 65 lives.
As the moments passed, my thoughts returned to my girlfriend, who I remembered at that moment loved delicate, fragile things. There were numerous glass-encased pictures hanging on the walls of the apartment, and glass bric-a-brac sat atop cabinets and bureaus around the dwelling. A giant TV was perched high on top of a cabinet in the bedroom. Was she even alive, I remember wondering as my emotions started getting the better of me?
I finally made it to the apartment, pulled up in front of the building, jammed the car into park and ran inside, screaming her name and ignoring people dressed in bathrobes and slippers yelling at me to stay out. Just as I had thought, all of the little knick-knacks that she adored had fallen, breaking into a million pointy pieces. It was pitch dark, and at first I thought she might have been buried under all our stuff. My heavy shoes crunched broken glass that was spread deep across the carpet as I checked each unlit room, but she wasn’t there.
I finally found her among the other frightened tenants gathered in the parking lot next door, and she was OK. Though quivering and shaken, she was otherwise fine. But most of our things — two TVs, stereos, furniture — were ruined. She was safe, though, and that was the important thing at the moment.
Shortly after the disaster reunited us briefly out of necessity, we broke up for good. Our fractious relationship had survived the LA Riots in 1992, but shook apart for the last time following the Northridge earthquake. It could be argued that was one good thing that came of the devastation, for both of us.
It’s sometimes difficult to believe all of that occurred 20 years ago. But perhaps an even more remarkable — and more chilling — realization is this scenario could easily play out again without warning when the next big quake hits, which experts say could happen at any time.
I clearly wasn’t prepared in 1994 — minus food, water, flashlight and gas — but I think I would be a little better able to cope now.
How about you? Where will life take you after the next big quake hits Los Angeles?