Friday, January 10, 2014

The big one

Pretty soon, you should be hearing about the 20th anniversary of the Northridge Earthquake that hit Southern California on Jan. 17, 1994.  A 6.7 shake that killed dozens, caused freeways to collapse, destroyed hundreds of buildings and more.

So, I'll get into the act early with my first few hours of hell.

A journalist at the time, my life predictably turned into one of those that define your career. Although 30 miles away from the epicenter, this one shook me hard, almost out of bed. The clock read 4:31 a.m.

I thought, "Damn, another one?"

At almost the same time (4:57 a.m.) on June 28, 1992, the 7.3-magnitude "Landers" earthquake had shook me out of this same bed and soon had me and a photographer heading to the epicenter to report on the damage there. (Landers is the middle of the Mojave Desert, so a large quake there did not cause as much property damage. Three people died, two of them from heart attacks. The cracks in the desert landscape were amazing).

I thought we would be done with a big quake for several years. After all, the 6.0 Sierra Madre quake had just hit a year earlier.

My initial reaction in the first few groggy seconds of Jan. 17, 1994 was this shaker was one of those famously large "aftershocks" to the Landers quake.  But, no, wait..... actually, this one felt too big for an aftershock.  Turning on the TV quickly confirmed that this one struck the San Fernando Valley with more serious consequences.  I thought, "Well, all my friends who talk about how CA will fall off into the ocean once day are now probably going bat-shit crazy: Three big quakes in three years!"  I wondered how many of my friends would be packing their bags for Colorado or Texas.

After making sure the family was safe -- remember, we did this drill back in 1992 -- and finally getting in touch with one of my editors who still phone service, I scrambled down to our Santa Clarita bureau, which also housed our printing press complex.

The printing presses were knocked offline and no one knew when they may come online.  As the hours passed, it would soon become one of the biggest questions facing my paper - can we even put out a paper tomorrow?

The roads on the way to the office were a mess.  A few fires had occurred and I could see fire trucks mopping up.  The radio in the car kept blaring out the updates.

I soon learned the Daily News' main office in Woodland Hills was in shambles. Had this quake struck during the day, I'm sure many of my colleagues would have been dead or severely injured because huge pieces of the building and light fixtures had fallen onto empty desks in the newsroom.

As it was, one of our photographers living in the Santa Clarita was almost killed by the book case that fell on his bed. He had just a leg bruise. A few inches separated his head from the heaviest part of the book case.

At the spacious Santa Clarita office I had a desk, some phone access and power.  But there would be no way the bulk our news team could use the offices in Santa Clarita because the quake took down the freeway leading up to our office from the San Fernando Valley. This same interchange at the Interstate 5 and Highway 14 in the narrow Newhall Pass was destroyed in the 1971 Sylmar quake. Plus, huge bridge sections of the 5 freeways beyond the pass had fallen.  The Santa Clarita Valley was, essentially, an island surrounded by broken freeways.

I would learn that an LAPD motorcycle officer rushing down the 14 freeway in darkness, on his way to help just  minutes after the quake struck, did not see that the interchange had collapsed. Officer Clarence Dean fell at least 40 feet and died instantly.  Yes, it was these same freeway overpasses and interchanges that had been rebuilt after 1971 with a stronger seismic standard...not.

In the days before cell phones, we had pagers. Today, they were dead or sporadically working. Phone lines were down in the Valley, so you could not "call into" those areas - even if we got paged to do so.  We had to make calls to friends outside the immediate area to to relay information. One of my editors, Pat Aidem, had to use this system to make sure her son was OK. He had been sleeping with friends in another city.  You live in Southern California long enough and you know how to do this "outbound" call system.  You also knew another trick - to dial numbers slowly to allow the telephone system time to "catch up" and send your call.  Dial too fast and you'll get a busy signal from this very over-loaded system.   I wonder if this would work today?  To this day, I keep a non-powered "land line"- just in case.

The main lifeline for our news team were radios installed in the fleet of vehicles used  by our photographers.  However, the main tower that "relayed" and boosted the signals of our car radios was down, so one photographer had to drive to the top of that hill and use his car radio to relay instructions and updates for the entire day. His car was the "relay station."  Being on that hill gave this photographer a "clear shot" to any of the other photographers below in the valley and now capturing the devastation. It was a smart move and I always commended Roger for giving up his chance to capture what any photographer lives for - just so his colleagues could do their jobs. What a sacrifice.

In Santa Clarita, we were driving out a few times from the office to survey the damage, interview people.  There wasn't any panic, but many scared people. The kids were most frightened.  But people seemed to be rallying, helping each other. I saw old folks being carried out of their damaged homes in chairs by complete strangers.  Broken water lines flooded homes and streets, and crews were out fixing them one at a time.   Batteries, water and potato chips were soon gone from the corner convenience stores that had power.  Other grocery stores lost power, but employees showed up and would relay bottles of water out from the back to customers standing in line. Cashiers improvised the payment system.  Sheriff's deputies kept close eye on these scenes.

We were instructed to come back to the office within an hour - to check in and give status reports.  Some kind of order was slowly returning ....then a 5.0 aftershock hit.  I was standing the rear parking lot of the printing press building........

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