It’s still hard to believe so many years have passed since what began as a quiet, ordinary morning in Northridge, California. I’ve attempted to write about what happened in those hours several times over the years, without much luck, because when I try to move over the keyboard as the memories of it come back, my hands begin to tremble. That’s no exaggeration. They’re trembling already.
The Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday fell on the 17th in 1994. We were grateful to be able to sleep in that morning. I’d been restless during the night, four months along with our first child, and constantly in need of using the bathroom. I’d gotten up that night as usual, in search of relief and food. We lived in an apartment building in Northridge, an older one, that looked sort of like a motel. It had dozens of apartments on three levels, all opening toward an open-air common area in the middle that couldn’t be seen from the street. In the middle of the common area was a pool. An elderly couple managed the building – Phil and Maya. They were lovely people, but I always tried to avoid their invitations to come in and sit awhile, because their apartment reeked of heavy, choking tobacco from the long, brown cigarellos they both constantly smoked.
I was hungry when I got up in the early hours of that morning. It was still dark outside. I went from our bedroom to the bathroom to the galley-style kitchenette in our tiny, two-and-a-half-room apartment. Looking forward to crawling back into bed next to my new husband (we’d only been married a year and a half at the time), I opened the refrigerator, perused for a moment, and then decided to return to bed. Morning would be here soon, I thought. I could wait to eat a few more hours. It was 4 a.m.
It’s so difficult to describe fully what an earthquake sounds like, and what it feels like. If you’ve lived through one, you know. Words can’t really describe it fully. But I’ll try.
I’d only been back in bed about 30 minutes when the first ‘wave’ hit. I call it a wave because we went from lying peacefully next to each other one minute to clinging to each other for life as we were thrown violently by some unseen force, as if something huge had slammed into us. But it wasn’t just one slam. The building we were in rocked on its foundations over and over, back and forth; our bed was tossed across the room like it was a child’s toy. Above the roar of a hundred locomotives, we could hear glass breaking and things smashing. It seemed to go on forever. And we just hung onto each other. We knew that the building could collapse at any time. We knew that those moments could very well be our last on this earth.
After what felt like a lifetime (we had heard later that the initial quake had only lasted 20 to 30 seconds), it stopped. In a second, my husband was out of the bed and yelling for me to throw some clothes and shoes on, and that we needed to get the hell out of there. It was then the second wave hit, much shorter than the first, but just as frightening. As it slowed, he grabbed my hand and guided me through the dark rooms. Glass and ceramic crunched under our feet as we made our way to the door. We could see in the dim light that the TV had popped out of the entertainment center and landed face-down on the floor a few feet away from it. The entertainment center itself had collapsed sideways into a corner of the living room. We pulled open the door to a world in chaos.
Residents of the building were coming out of their apartments, filing down the stairs, some crying, some calm, to the open area below. Around the pool, some people wandered around in confusion, in shock. One man was bleeding from his forehead. I wondered why the ground was wet; we were walking through puddles. Then I saw that the pool had half emptied by the force of the shaking ground.
We made our way through the concourse to the garage area. We would get in the car and drive to my husband’s parents’ house, which was only a few miles away in Granada Hills. But the garage had partially collapsed, and the big iron gate that separated it from the street was jammed shut, as its frame had shifted. My husband and some of the men from our building pushed and pushed on it, and finally, it rolled open. As we sat in our car, waiting our turn to exit the garage, I could have no idea what we would see or what we would do going forward. All we could do was go.