6.6 quake wasn't 'The Big One' just seemed like it L.A. EARTHQUAKE -- AFTERSHOCK 'I thought this was it' -- Earthquake smashes Los Angeles area

at least 29 are killed

January 18, 1994|By Dion Thompson | Dion Thompson,Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES -- There has always been this fear in the fault-riven desert and valleys of California, this nagging fear that the Big One would, in one terrifying eruption, send everything west of the San Andreas Fault sliding into the Pacific.

It has been joked about, sung about, but always with a tinge of unease.

Some have even prayed for it to come and put an end to the dreadful waiting, the sense of impending doom.

But it does not come. It only sends its frightening messengers.

One came yesterday. A 6.6 quake struck Northridge, a San Fernando Valley suburb of one-story stucco ranchers with some apartment houses, one of which collapsed, killing 15.

It was the biggest earthquake on record in the Los Angeles basin. Yet it was not the Big One. But at 4:31 a.m. yesterday, that is how it seemed.

"I was asleep and then all I saw was the bed moving," said Keijuan Douglas, 15, who lives in an apartment in Sun Valley in the eastern end of the valley. "I thought it was somebody trying to wake me up. And I said, 'Aw, come on, Ma,' then I didn't see nobody. Then I said, 'Oh, my God' and grabbed my baby LTC brother."

"It was moving me around like a wave," said John Gulzow, 45, general supervisor for a construction company, who was driving north on Interstate 5. "All the lights went out and sounded like thunder. The road was moving like a wave and all I saw was a cloud of dust."

A hundred and fifty feet ahead of Mr. Gulzow, a quarter-mile section of California Highway 14 crashed onto the interstate.

"The whole sky was lit up. Fires up this way; fires over there," said George Meza, 23, who was traveling California Highway 118 on his way to work as a weight trainer at a Northridge health club.

He was near a point where a section of the highway was sheared off by the quake's force. "You couldn't see it. When your headlights hit it, all you saw was this semitrailer pulled across the highway. He was saving a lot of lives."

Like many yesterday, Mr. Meza's first concern was for his family.

Back in Sun Valley, his aunt, Rosalia Meza, had stumbled and broke her wrist in the pre-dawn darkness as she ran to pick up her child. His cousin Humberto Meza, 26, also was worried. "I was scared for you," he told George. "I thought you ate it on that 118 freeway."

Out on Interstate 5 in the pitch darkness, Mr. Gulzow and others worked to help a woman who was six months pregnant. "It just happened so quick," he said. "The first thing was going through my mind was to see if anybody needed help. I didn't have time to be scared."

Alongside the highway, which looked as if a giant sledgehammer had smashed its concrete, a police officer ripped off his shirt to bandage the woman's bleeding head. The officer and others took a tailgate off a pickup truck and tied her to it. All seemed well. Injuries but no deaths.

Then, 45 minutes after the quake's first rumble, Mr. Gulzow heard tires screeching. A Los Angeles Police Department motorcycle officer was approaching what had become a sheer cliff on Highway 14 where it crosses over Interstate 5. The same stretch of highway collapsed in a 1971 earthquake.

"I saw him fly off the road," Mr. Gulzow said. "His body never left the motorcycle until it hit the ground." Those on the scene found the operator lying face down. They rolled him over and tried to administer CPR, but he died from what Mr. Gulzow said appeared to be severe head injuries.

It was the first reported death.

Back in Sun Valley, aftershocks rolled through the early morning. Dozens of people huddled outside in clearings, blankets over their shoulders, their hands holding candles, despite the danger of broken gas mains. All waited for the sun.

And when it came, this is what could be seen: collapsed highways and parking garages; cinder-block walls fallen on the sidewalk; intersections flooded from broken water mains; smoke rising from burning buildings and trailer homes; a derailed freight train whose cars piled on another.

In the quake's early aftermath, people lined up at any working pay phone and at any open store. By midday, impromptu campsites had sprung up along the sidewalks and in all the parks as some people opted to spend the night outdoors, fearing aftershocks, fearing another quake.

They had survived this one, and in Sun Valley, George and Humberto toasted their good fortune with Tanqueray gin and Tang.

"Cheers to today," said George. To which Humberto responded, "Cheers that we're alive, man."

And then they began another wait for the Big One.

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