Remembering the Northridge Earthquake, 20 years later

Posted by David Middlecamp on January 30, 2014 

The garage area of a Northridge apartment building disappeared when supports gave way and the structure collapsed, crushing the cars parked below. Residents reported no one was injured at the complex, located on Plummer Street a half-block from Reseda Boulevard. ©Telegram-Tribune/Robert Dyer

ROBERT DYER

Had the ground started shaking a few hours later the death toll would have been even higher. The Northridge Earthquake was deadly enough. The 6.7-magnitude earthquake killed 60 people, according to the USGS website. The quake struck at 4:31 a.m., well before rush hour, and packed a furious punch. In some places the ground acceleration was stronger than the force of gravity, hopping mobile homes off their supports. Four freeways were damaged in the region as well as several buildings, and the Santa Susana Mountains were uplifted as much as 15 centimeters. Former Tribune photographer Robert Dyer remembers:

Twenty years ago — January 17, 1994 — Dave Wilcox and I were assigned to cover the Northridge Earthquake because communication had broken down with news resources out of the L.A. area, which had been hit hardest. Dave had relatives living in Northridge.

Dave and I took separate cars and planned a rendezvous at a somewhat random highway interchange off the Simi Valley Freeway near Northridge. The Simi Valley Freeway, which is State Highway 118, was designated the Ronald Reagan Freeway later that year.

There was no electricity south of Santa Barbara. I had been waved through a roadblock in Ventura by the CHP ("You're on your own, kid") so my San Luis Obispo County press credentials got me onto the 118.

There, I had to negotiate buckled pavement, slowing to a crawl at times, passing a few long-abandoned cars that had crashed on the pavement. The Simi Valley Freeway was empty, and I was all alone for most of the trip south.

Then began a more surreal experience. Dave and I managed to meet up as planned. I parked my car, wanting shade, but I resisted a parking spot under a nearby empty overpass. Dave then drove us to his sister's house near the epicenter.

On the drive through town, we silently witnessed the toll taken on the community: collapsed walls and chimneys, rubble piled at shopping mall entrances. You could see that rock walls were a popular fencing material in residential areas because they were all lying in the yards now.

There was plenty to report and photograph. We saw an apartment complex that had collapsed. It actually looked quite normal until you noticed the line of car trunks protruding from under the structure. The upper two stories had pancaked onto the parking garage below. There was plenty of more serious damage, other buildings where people had died. We arrived at Dave's sister's residence just in time to experience a magnitude-5.5 aftershock.

The ground undulated under my feet. It caused a travel trailer to dance across a driveway near a house while the massive palm trees above us swayed with giant "SWISH, SWISH" sounds. I felt guilty for emitting a "Wow! Cool!" while nearby, a terrified someone screamed, "Not again!" (I think it was Dave's sister.) But I was entranced with awe. My senses were so hyped ... I was so fully aware.

I drove back to San Luis late that afternoon because I had to process film for the following day's paper. They weren't letting anyone back on the Simi Valley Freeway so I took an alternate route, finally finding a gas station that had electricity near Ventura. I waited in the three block-long line for 45 minutes to get my rationed 10 gallons of gas.

But the lonely drive back in the dark gave me time to reflect on the thrilling feel of having the Earth feel so fluid under my feet during that aftershock. It remains one of the most awesome experiences I have ever had.

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