Looking Back On The 1994 Northridge Earthquake 20 Years Later
On Monday, January 17th 1994 a 6.7 magnitude earthquake struck at 4:31AM in Northridge, right in the heart of the San Fernando Valley.
This is my story.
Twenty years ago this week in 1994, I was a young college radio geek with big dreams of working on a big stage. I was manning the controls at the radio station on the campus of Pasadena City College (KPCC-FM). The weekend of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday was in full swing and on that Monday, life in the big city would change all of us forever.
It was Sunday, January 16th and my girlfriend and I set off to visit my cousin for the day that was living in high desert community of Phelan. My parents were spending the long weekend up there and we decided to join them for the day. We normally took the same route every time we traveled up there. We took the 10 east to the 15 north to the 138 and took it to Phelan, and we always reversed the drive on the way home. That Sunday I had planned a different route home just to change things up a bit. I had to be at the radio station to start my usual shift by 6PM. We left Phelan around 3PM and I decided to continue to take HWY 138 west all the way to Palmdale. Yes it was indeed way off course, but it was a beautiful day and the long drive was tempting. After arriving in Palmdale we then got on the 14 freeway and headed south towards Los Angeles.
We are approaching the 14 and 5 freeway interchange and I was eager to tell my girlfriend about the history of this area. I remember telling her, back in 1971 this whole interchange collapsed in the infamous Sylmar Earthquake. She gave me that “why the heck would you bring that up now” look! I don’t remember exactly what I said after that, but I do remember looking at the clock. It was about 4PM and I needed to be at work soon.
I made it to work in time and worked all the way until midnight. Our brand new state of the art radio studio was located in the newly built college library and the smell of fresh paint was still lingering in the air. Because my parents were still up in the desert two of my brothers and I were staying at the house. I remember getting home around 12:30AM, it was now Monday. It was a holiday and so we decided to stay up late and watch movies and do what dumb young college kids do when mom and dad are not home. One of my brothers had to be up early to go to work. Eventually I passed out in my parents’ bed while my other brother slept in the reclining chair in the same bedroom.
Now if you grew up in Southern California in the 80’s, you spent your entire lives as children being told that if the Russians didn’t nuke us into oblivion, the “BIG ONE” was going to send California into the ocean! True story! We spent our entire elementary school career packing earthquake food and doing all the drop and cover drills you can think of. And still, no earthquake. Then finally in October 1987 we were hit with the Whittier quake! Was that the “Big One”? Nope!! What?? Oh boy!! After the quake of ’87 the area remained dormant of any big measurable seismic activity and it seemed that the fear of the “Big One” was slowly slipping out of our memories….
It was 4:31AM and I remember waking up in my parents’ bed to the sound of their closet doors rattling. At first I thought one of my brothers bumped into them while he was getting ready to go to work. Within a split second I knew that wasn’t the case. I immediately felt the ground began to shake more than I’ve ever felt in my life. As kids, our parents trained us to meet in the hallway in the middle of the home and that’s exactly where I ran. In the process my other brother, who was still sleeping in the recliner, also sprung up and immediately headed to our “safety zone”.
By the time we arrived there the full force of the quake was hitting our home. Being that my older brother was already up getting ready he had turned on all the lights in the living room. We hung on as the ground beneath us shifted about 10 feet to the north…. And 10 feet to the south! The first thought I had was, this is it! This is the quake we’ve all been waiting for!
The sound of items crashing down in our home was deafening and terrifying. And on the comedic side, the sight of my brother screaming his head off trying to run outside wearing only his underwear will always stick in my head! I only say this because up until that point, that would’ve been me screaming in my underwear! But seeing him running around made me realize that we were not going to get out of here alive if I panicked. I’m still not sure how I was able to remain that calm. The lights began to dim but they never went out in our neighborhood and suddenly the shaking began to slow down and eventually stop. The sound of burglar and car alarms blared loudly outside. We began to assess the damage.
We were very fortunate. Lots of items came crashing down but due to the fact we had carpet, not much broke. And after the quake of 1987 my parents bolted down the enormous grandfather clock. It remained standing tall and mighty. We immediately turned on the TV and every channel was blank. We didn’t have a radio in the house so I decided to go to my car and see if I can pick up anything.
For the first time I hit scan on the FM dial and it completely swept through most of the stations only stopping on about 3 stations. K-EARTH 101 and KPCC was one of them. I flipped to the AM side to get some news and of course we all knew that was HUGE! I went back to the house and we turned the TV back on and only then the first pictures of the damage was starting to come in. I remember the only channel we could get was NBC 4. Live video of all TV monitors lying on the floor were shown and I believe the only guy on the air was an overnight reporter being lit up by a flashlight.
After about an hour I was able to tune in my college radio station. This wasn’t your typical college station, the transmitter was on Mt. Wilson and we reached the entire Southern California area. Our news director was on the air trying to take calls from people and he was having a really hard time. The board operator on duty was inexperienced in handling this. This was not his normal duty. I thought to myself, I have to go there and help out. I had the experience of working the board with live phone calls. It was still dark outside when I decided to haul butt over to the station. I got on the 210 freeway and drove as fast as I could in the pitch dark. The closer I arrived to the station the more damage I could see.
I relieved the board operator of his duties and rolled a TV monitor into the studio. That gave the host his first look to the outside world as the sun began to rise. Our news wire service was going crazy all morning long with news damage rolling in from all over town. I then glanced at the television and saw something that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It was the intersection of the 5 and the 14 freeways. It had collapsed! The image of the LAPD motorcycle lying on its side was horrifying. He was rushing to his job after the quake hit and had no idea the ramp was gone. So sad. I couldn’t believe that only 12 hours ago I had driven over that same bridge and brought up its destructive past to my girlfriend.
What followed days and months afterwards would always stick with us. We saw the people of Southern California, who just two years before suffered the Rodney King riots, come together, clean up, rebuild and revitalize that area of Northridge and the surrounding communities.
Shortly afterwards I applied and got accepted into the internship program at K-EARTH 101. I started there in April and memories of the quake were still everywhere. The building K-EARTH was located in was only one block away from the collapsed portion of the Santa Monica Freeway at Fairfax/ Venice and LaCienga Blvd. The detours were still in effect, but the people of L.A. had adjusted to the changes. About two weeks into my internship on my 21st birthday the freeway re-opened. Vice President Al Gore showed up to “cut the ribbon”! Robert W. Morgan, who was working mornings at the time, sent me and our traffic guy Richard Turnage over there to cover it.
Later that summer the Little League team from Northridge – after suffering the most loss, some of the kids were still homeless, went on to win the Little League World Series. We at K-EARTH 101 were honored to be there official “welcome home” hosts. It was truly a great ending to an otherwise damaging year!