Dunc's World

2 Feb 2021

Did the earth move for you?

by Duncan Fry

I didn’t realise until a few weeks ago that it’s been over 25 years since the 6.7 Richter scale earthquake that happened in the early hours of January 17th 1994 in Northridge, California.

I wrote about it at the time, but I was on the phone the other day to my friend Bruce Maddocks – originally a top engineer from L.A. but now living the good life in Port Macquarie – who was there when it happened, as was I, and with the insight of hindsight we were swapping reminiscences of that strange time.

I was over there for the NAMM show, and had arrived a couple of days early to get organised, rent a car, and get our booth set up.


I had checked into my usual accommodation, the Anaheim ‘Penny Sleeper’ Inn, known to my colleagues at ARX as the ‘Penny Pincher’ Inn, because of its extremely affordable nightly rates, thanks to being situated on the centre median strip of the I-5 freeway (not really but it felt like it!)

Possibly said establishment …

Bruce lived in a 1920s-era house in the Hollywood Hills. He had heard the noise – a long, low rumbling that seemed to be coming from over the hill and was funnelling its way down his street, so he went out into the garden to have a look.

“It felt and sounded like a runaway freight train was coming straight towards me” he said. “Suddenly the ground flicked up, like shaking out a giant blanket!

“At that moment the chimney of the house toppled over and crashed through the roof into the room where I had been sleeping! It took a while for me to go back inside again, I can tell you.”

For me, back at the Penny Pincher, I woke up to loud and strange noises in the room above me. My immediate thought was that some deviate had picked up an elephant at a singles bar, brought it back to their room and was engaging in some practices of questionable legality.

“What are these people doing?” I thought; “Don’t they know it’s 4.30 in the morning?”

The long slow creaking and shuddering movements continued, getting louder and louder, when suddenly a light bulb went on in my head “Uh oh, this is no elephantine hump… this is an earthquake!”

What’s the earthquake drill? Get under something solid like a door frame? No way. I wasn’t budging from that bed. Instead, like the fearless, battle hardened, courageous road warrior that I am, I shoved my head under the pillow and waited for it all to go away.

The movements got worse, and a really low rumble was clearly audible. The room seemed to float and bump. The feeling was like being in a dream with the bed bumping over a very bad road in a car with very soft suspension.

It was a really eerie feeling. Mother Nature flexing her muscles just to show us who’s really in charge here.

Then, just as suddenly as it had started, it stopped. I slowly eased my head out from under the pillow and looked out the window. No damage that I could see. The old Penny Pincher (and I) would live to see another day!

Warren Zevon had got it right:

”…and if California slides into the ocean
As the mystics and statistics say it will
I predict this hotel will be standing
Until I pay my bill …”

I switched on the TV and instantly I could see that Anaheim had got off lightly. On the screen there was a staffer who had been dragged out of the video department where he had been working, and shoved on camera.

He looked scared tishless, and I can’t say that I blamed him.

The TV station was in the heart of the Valley, and had received the brunt of the shock. The newsroom behind him was a total mess. Ten or more 21″ TV monitors had crashed off the wall on to people’s desks, shelves had been pushed over and their contents had spread all over the floor, pieces of ceiling were hanging down.

After 10 minutes he said “That’s it – I’m going home to check on my family. Good luck everyone.” And off he went while they tried to find someone else to anchor the news.

In Northridge, the epicentre of the earthquake, entire apartment complexes had collapsed, killing at least 21 people. What were once three storey buildings were now two storey; the first floor was now where the ground floor had been.

Only the fact that the ground floor had mainly been car parking had saved many more people from being killed.

The scary part for me was that I had been in Northridge the previous afternoon, looking at a dark blue Plymouth Superbird car that was for sale. In fact, I’d driven right through the area that had been worst hit only about eight hours earlier.

Plymouth Superbird

I called the guy who had the car to see if perhaps it had been damaged in the ‘quake, and whether he’d take less money for it now! However, although half his house had fallen down, luckily for him the garage remained untouched. Obviously the builder had got his priorities right!

The news images went on; a four-mile long freight train carrying toxic chemicals had been derailed, indeed it had been completely flipped over as the tracks had buckled and twisted. A shopping complex had fallen down, and hospitals were turning people away because they were inundated with walking wounded and worse.

To add to the chaos in the hospitals, they had only emergency lighting, no power, and no water.

The Santa Monica freeway is eight lanes in each direction, and is the major traffic artery in and out of LA and Hollywood to and from the coast and Santa Monica. In fact, it’s the world’s busiest freeway.

Or it was. If you couldn’t drive on the freeway then you’d go along Santa Monica Boulevard. Trouble was, the freeway had collapsed right onto it, causing double the traffic congestion.

The police recommended allowing another hour to hour and a half for your journey if you had to go along the Santa Monica freeway. This was definitely the understatement of the year.

A picture taken on January 19, 1994 in Los Angeles, California, shows a bulldozer tearing down a section of the Santa Monica Freeway that collapsed during the Northridge earthquake. Commuters were urged to leave for work two hours earlier due to the 300 foot section of the road that is closed. (Photo credit Tim Clary/AFP/GettyImages)

At the NAMM show, people were telling me it took them five hours to get to work!

And congestion it sure was. A TV news traffic helicopter (Tele-copter!) showed us the Santa Monica freeway at night. You could see a glowing trail of tail-lights leading up to the spot where it had collapsed, and then there was nothing – a black hole where everyone had to turn off the freeway – and a mile further on the tail-lights started up again where the cars turned back onto the freeway.

Heavy equipment prepares for moving portions of Interstate 5 as an abandoned truck rests on the damaged structure on January 18, 1994. The highway collapsed January 17 when an earthquake hit the region, causing 7 billion USD in damage in the area. (Photo credit Tim Clary/AFP/GettyImages)

“The Government offered special financial incentives for the contractors who were rebuilding these overpasses,” said Bruce. “The guy doing the one near my studio got an extra million for getting it done ahead of time!

“I heard he took the money and disappeared to Mexico before the cracks started appearing in the concrete!”

“People became very cautious about driving over these rebuilt overpasses. They would slow down and stop as they approached, then floor the accelerator to get over it quickly. And even quicker when driving underneath them!”

Still, life went on. And every cloud has a silver lining, even in the middle of an earthquake zone, where one person’s disaster is another’s business opportunity.

As I drove through Anaheim the morning after the day of the ‘quake, opportunity was knocking loud and clear on the street corners:
“Earthquake T-shirts! Earthquake T-shirts! It’s a BIG one – 6.7 on the Richter scale! Come and get your souvenir earthquake T-shirts!”

History was in the making and I was determined to grab a piece of it!

CX Magazine – December 2020   

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