January 17, 1994: In a frightening journey through the aftermath of the horrific Northridge earthquake, sanity would soon become a commodity in very short supply

By William Campbell
January 17, 2004

With a life spent in Los Angeles, I’ve experienced more than my fair share of shakers. My first was the San Fernando earthquake on February 9, 1971 at 6:02 a.m. I was 6 years old living with my mother in Beverly Hills at the time. The next strongest one that I can recall was the 5.8 temblor that struck at 7:42 a.m. on October 1, 1987, with its epicenter in the Whittier Narrows area. I was 23 and living with my fiancée in Van Nuys.

Of course, there have been countless smaller ones of varying magnitudes. In fact, one look at the California/Nevada earthquake section of the United States Geological Survey’s website and it seems the earth is moving somewhere in the neighborhood more often than it’s not.

But the little ones I can forget. Not so the big ones.

In the ’71 quake, it’s true that I slept through almost all of it, even after my mom grabbed me quickly up out of bed after trying calmly and repeatedly to wake me up. I came to at the top of the stairs that my mom and I then carefully walked down before heading into the closet space underneath them. I remember my mom grabbing the phone and bringing it in with us. I stood there in the dark, my hand in hers, wondering why we were standing in the closet in the dark and what all the noise was outside.

When the Whittier quake hit, I was in bed with my fiancée. But in the next heartbeat we had leaped out and proceeded to the spare bedroom being used as my office where I proceeded to push her as far under the desk return as I could while I looked out a west facing window and watched the power poles rock back and forth like huge metronome arms while the cables strung between them spun and jerked like giant jump ropes.

At that point I ducked down and did my best to burrow in there with here where we stayed long after the shaking stopped.

“You’re hurting me,” she said and I realized I was still pushing hard against her.

Having grown up suffering the earth’s moves in and around Los Angeles my sensors became hair-triggered permanently to detect and react to even the slightest movement of the earth.

So it was that at 4:31 a.m. on January 17, 1994, when a previously unknown thrust fault in the northeastern San Fernando Valley freight-trained itself through the Sherman Oaks house in which I was living, I was already up and braced in the bedroom doorway thanks to the first initial ripples tripping my internal earthquake alarm which then launched me out of bed toward the door before I even really knew what was going on.

I came fully awake moments later with no doubts what was happening as the shaking reached a level beyond anything I’d experienced before — and then kept going with a malevolence to it that terrified me. It was as if a locomotive had come to a dead stop beside me, thrown it into neutral and gunned its maniacal engine while simultaneously popping wheelies. This wasn’t just an earthquake, this was evil, and it was taking my definition of the natural disaster to a whole new ghastly level. Doing my best to hold on against the onslaught, the one thought that bubbled up through the near panic was “People are dying right now.”

I realized there was a good chance I could be one of them.

When the train finally geared up and passed through, the shaking may have soon dissipated, but the house continued to sway back and forth with creaks and cracks while shedding various things. Pictures and pitchers and such continued to fall with bangs and shatters, underscored by a strange, surreal and incessant wocka-wocka-wocka sound that to this day sends chills dragracing down my spine just to think of it.

Peeling myself off the doorframe, I tried the light switch knowing it was in vain to do so. Then in the pitch darkness I set about digging through the huge pile of books and CDs and shelves and drawers and my daughter’s toys and god knows what else that had come to rest on the floor in search of a shirt, shorts, a pair of shoes and a flashlight.

Once duly equipped I threaded my way out of the bedroom and through the hallway where my jaw dropped when my flashlight’s beam illuminated the remains of the chimney, which had fallen into the living room leaving a gaping hole in the house’s north wall.

Scanning around, I was further taken aback to find every door in the house wide open: the front door, the French doors leading to the deck over the garage, the back door off the kitchen and the French doors in the second bedroom leading to the backyard. The scene looked as if the havoc hadn’t been caused by an earthquake at all, but instead perhaps a bomb or some sort of covert operations raid. At least the floor seemed intact. And the walls.

But the dust! Everywhere. Inside and out. The flashlight cut through the stuff as if it were smoke. Into the kitchen I stood still listening for the telltale sound of seeping gas, but neither heard nor smelled any.

Stepping outside the front door I made my way cautiously down the front stairs down to the motor court where I found the garage door intact, but jammed.
It was at some point that I looked up, simultaneously reassured to find the stars still shining and awed by how bright the night sky was now that there was no ambient city light to dim it. It did wonders to calm me.

In fact the whole neighborhood seemed calm. While I saw the occasional flashlight flicker inside a nearby house, there was nothing else going on. No groups of people gathering outside. No one checking on anyone else. Save for distant sirens, dog barks and the occasional sound of something toppling or crashing close by, it was almost as if things had returned to normal. To think only moments before it seemed as if the city was about to fold in on itself, now all was deathly still under the brilliant blanket of stars above.

94quake1.jpgBy the time darkness had begun to abate, I had manually opened the garage door and extricated my motorcycle undamaged despite the mess that was inside. Needing an escape, I rode up the hill pleased to see the sunrise from my vantage point near the intersection of Beverly Glen Boulevard and Mulholland Drive.

Heading east along Mulholland, I encountered only a handful of vehicles and at one point somewhere in the vicinity of Marlon Brando’s house passed the hissing stink of a sheered gas line jutting from a hillside beside me, I attempted a 911 call on my cell phone but was repeatedly greeted with “all circuits are busy.” At a vista point between Laurel and Coldwater canyons, I pulled off the road to survey the San Fernando Valley, which was blanketed with smoke and dust as if in the midst of a monumental battle.

Standing close to the edge of the lookout, the first substantial aftershock rolled over forcing me to step awkwardly backward over the shifting ground as I watched dirt and rocks shake and slip down the hillside.

94quake2.jpgDown Laurel Canyon Boulevard I headed back into the valley, making sure to pay careful attention and stop at each intersection whose signals had all gone dark. Turning west onto Ventura Boulevard, I soon came to the Café Cordiale building just east of the Ralphs market at Hazeltine. The second floor was fully engulfed in flames. A hook-and-ladder truck was deployed in front of it trying to knock the fire down.

A crowd had gathered and I dismounted my cycle to crunch among the broken plate glass from the storefronts on the south side of the street and linger with the other people milling around and watching the action.

For a brief moment I debated between going to work (at a job I’d just started about a month earlier) or going home, and the latter won out without so much as a second thought. On the ride back, I even entertained the notion that perhaps the damage wasn’t as bad as I thought.

It was worse.

94quake4.jpgArriving back at the house, the level of the destruction was much more evident in the daylight. The house was still standing and seemed intact and on its foundation, with exception of the downed chimney and the shambles that were the property’s perimeter walls. But inside the place was a wreck. The armoire that held the television and stereo to the left of what had been the brick fireplace pitched forward but not before a corner first stabbed a huge chunk out of the drywall. In something of a miracle, the baby grand piano had rolled across the hardwood floor and served to brace the broad and tall bookcase that occupied the south wall, which most certainly would have come crashing down. The cabinet on the other side of the fireplace next to the kitchen door was also still standing, but virtually every piece of glassware and blue-and-white china it had contained now lay shattered on the floor in front of it, mingling with hundreds of bricks from the fireplace façade. Where the fireplace had been now revealed a four-foot wide by six-foot tall opening to the outside world.

And in the kitchen, the large microwave had been thrown at a diagonal from its station above the range, ending up about eight feet away against the back door. The refrigerator had rolled forward several feet from the wall and disgorged practically everything inside, as had the kitchen’s cabinets and pantry.

Remarkably, not a single window or mirror was broken throughout the house.

The spare bedroom suffered from an armoire that also had fallen over as well as several large cracks in the drywall. And the adjoining bathroom’s ceiling had dropped a nice-sized piece smack dab into the tub, exposing roof beams and insulation. Plus the cabinetry had spit out all its toiletries and such into the sink and counter and toilet.

Same with the main bathroom, which was one big pungent jumble of broken cologne and soap bottles and other such sundries.

Moving through the hallway back to my bedroom, I noticed the three-foot-square wood panel that normally sat in the ceiling and whenever pushed aside opened into an attic crawl space had fallen to the floor. Only much later in the day would I discover the blood caked down my back that led up to the nasty wound that resulted during the panel’s plunge when one of its corners punched and punctured my left shoulder behind my collar bone. I had no recollection of being hit.

Returning to my bedroom, the benefit of my quick reflexes became immediately evident. Beyond the mountain of stuff on the floor, a bookcase had timbered down across my bed, discharging its contents — including some glass shelving. The pillow where my head and neck had been was now littered with hardback books among jagged shards and pieces of those shelves and I didn’t even want to think what might have been had I not reacted so decisively in getting up.

The next of countless aftershocks to come that day hit and in a single frantic leap I was in the doorway riding it out. After it subsided, I was shocked to find foot-long scrape marks dragged back and forth on the wall near to where I had been holding on at 4:31 a.m. I gaped at the realization that those marks in the dark blue paint were caused by my fingernails skidding fore and aft during the worst of the motion. Whether it was my nails scraping across the plaster or the wall flexing north to south beneath them, here and now was dramatic evidence as to the force of the temblor and the incredible resilience of the building. I patted the wall appreciatively.

Back in the living room I picked up the phone and put it back on the hook. Knowing better than to expect a dial tone I lifted the receiver to my ear and to my amazement there was one. Wasting no time I dialed my ex-wife in Reseda to make sure she and my then-5-year-old daughter were all right. Even more amazing, she answered. They were shaken up pretty bad, but all had emerged physically unscathed. I was tremendously relieved.

I decided to give my mother a try who was visiting relatives in Alabama. I was as relieved as I was pleased at the strokes of luck and good timing that got her out of town so she didn’t experience what had happened here. My mother’s the ultimate trooper, but I think back at the unstoppable violence of the shaking and think that experiencing this quake perhaps might have been too much for her to bear.

My luck continued. Someone picked up the phone and I identified myself, asking to speak to Casey. She came to the phone quickly.

“Hi mom,” I said.

“Hi!” she replied, and the unexpected calm and cheer in her voice surprised me as I figured she would have heard about the quake by now.

“Uh, There’s been an earthquake.” I stammered. “Pretty bad one.”

“I know!”

“You do?” The revelation made her light-heartedness even more curious.

“Yeah, it’s all over the TV here. You OK?”

I mulled over the various definitions of “OK” before answering. “Yeah, I’m all right.”

“How’s the house?”

I took a look around the living room. “It’s pretty bad.”

“Do you need me to come back early?” I thought about that a moment and figured it would be best for her if things calmed down first.

“I don’t think so. There’s nothing you’ll really be able to do for the time being.”

We stayed on the line for a short while longer, going over when her flight was going to be landing at LAX and making small talk. I told her I’d been able to find out my daughter was safe.

“That’s great. See you at the airport on Friday. Love you.”

“Love you, too.” And we hung up. Friday seemed so very far away. I picked up the phone to call some friends. It was dead. I wouldn’t get a dial tone again for another 30 hours.

Digging through the kitchen I came up with a portable radio, and through one of the few drawers that hadn’t been turned inside out I found some appropriate batteries and installed them.

AM radio station KFWB became my only connection with the outside world and between aftershocks I was riveted to reports from the Northridge Meadows apartments where ultimately 16 people lost their lives. I learned that a section of the Santa Monica Freeway had collapsed, as had a transition from the Antelope Valley Freeway to the Golden State, killing a motorcycle cop who plunged with his bike off the end while racing in to duty.

But then it became time to do something. Anything. I couldn’t just sit around the mess listening to the radio spew the mounting death and destruction tolls between dives into doorways whenever the earth would move. I had to be active, so my mandate became to return the house to as close to its previous condition as I could and daylight was burning.

Donning leather gloves I started in the living room, first moving all the bricks through the kitchen and out into the backyard in what became a sizeable pile. Then I raised the downed armoire and restocked it with its electronic equipment and unbroken bric-a-brac. I rolled the piano back to its original location and swept up all the broken glass and china, then busted out the hand vacuum and sucked up the settled dust and other remaining debris a bit at a time until its charge ran dry.

Downstairs while working to straighten up the garage I was able to extricate some large pieces of plywood left over from a previous construction project that came in very handy in closing up the hole in the north wall where the fireplace was no more.

In the kitchen I slid the fridge back to its place and returned any unspoiled contents or unbroken containers to its shelves. There may have been no electricity, but a closed refrigerator can keep things for days that would otherwise spoil on the outside.

I moved the microwave back above the range and restocked the canned and boxed goods into the pantry and returned any unbroken dishes to the cabinets. Whatever sloppy mixture was left over was scooped into trash bags and mopped up and away. Once finished there the kitchen looked as if nothing happened. Even the gas still worked on the stove so I took a break and pan fried a steak. There was also water still coming from the pipes, but I heeded warnings put out on the radio to boil all water.

Reflecting upon the clean-up effort 10 years removed makes it seem a smooth and seamless affair, but make no mistake. It was time-consuming and terrifying. With ceaseless irregularity came the sudden nightmarish jolts and regardless of their magnitude I made like a frightened rabbit for the nearest cover — sometimes a doorway, sometimes under the piano — where my heart would threaten to pound out of my chest long after the stillness returned.

And during the stronger of the aftershocks that dreadful and impossible-to-pinpoint “wocka wocka wocka” sound would make an appearance and be so slow to tape off after the shaking would cease.

On top of that the only news was bad. Very bad: the extrication of yet another dead body from the collapsed Northridge Meadows apartments, or the discovery of a young man electrocuted in Sherman Oaks, or the frantic search for a young girl in the ruins of her hillside home, or the collapse of any number of structures ranging from houses in the canyons to Cal State Northridge. It was simply all horrible.

The one inspiring moment was when rescuers were able to bring out a worker alive who had been trapped in a destroyed Northridge Plaza parking structure.

Between the aftershocks and being made always aware of the disheartening enormity of the damage I continued to do the only thing of which I was capable: return my tiny part of the world to some semblance of normalcy.

By the time I finished the kitchen it was well into the afternoon, and a report aired about valley residents streaming into the open spaces of the area’s parks and setting up tents because they were unable or unwilling to spend the coming night indoors. That news hit home: it would be dark soon, And for as frightening as aftershocks are with the sun up, it dawned on me how absolutely horrific it could be in the pitch darkness.

Alone.

I flirted strongly with the idea of driving to a park and roughing it. After all, the appeal was obvious: nothing could fall on you in the middle of a softball outfield and there’d be something of an ad-hoc community within which to involve oneself. But something in my backbone stiffened and wouldn’t allow any sort of retreat.

Nothing’s going to scare me out of this house, I thought. And that settled it.

While sleep would pretty much be out of the question, what about light? The thought of holding the line in a house that could very well be on the verge of falling down at any time with only a tiny flashlight to fend off the bogeyman gave me the willies supreme, so I set about scavenging any combination of wax and wick I could find. Ending up with rag tag bunch of them, I even set up “earthquake-proof” candles by placing a small bowl into a larger bowl or pan partially filled with water. Then I would fill the small bowl with rocks and water and place the candle in an empty glass at an angle atop it — and it worked. Any candle that tipped over was readily extinguished.

By late afternoon, I had straightened up the garage and the second bedroom and its bathroom, as well as the hallway and the main bathroom. On the radio it was announced that the mayor had ordered a city-wide curfew to be enforced. Night was on its way. The monsters would be coming out.

Indeed, the sun had long since moved past the west side of the canyon. It would be dark in a short while and I still had my bedroom to attack. So I set up three of my quake candles in there and went to work. But in hardly any time at all, it was eerie evening and I could see nothing outside. It was as if black velvet had been draped over the windows.

It would be wonderful to write that the aftershocks abated after dark, but if anything they seemed to intensify — as did my very active imagination. During one particularly hair-raising shaker, I stood in the bedroom doorway and watched helpless as the light from the four candles that I had set up in the living room extinguished one by one. Yet when all was still again and I went to re-light them, none had tipped over.

It was as if someone (or something) had blown them out. To compound it, with the freakish wocka-wocka sound trailing off as I was attempting to re-light the first one, a picture fell (or was pushed?) off the bookcase behind me with a sudden clattering bang.

To say I lost it would be quite the understatement.
With every hair standing on end and my skin crawling toward the edge of insanity and tears streaming I stood up as tall and strong and imposing as I could in the tarpit-black stillness broken only by the groans of the house settling and bellowed for all demons real and imagined to hear.

“You wanna fuck with me?” I screamed. And then louder: “You wanna fuck with me?! Well then enough of this pansy-assed candle-blowing, behind-the-back bullshit and just bring it on you motherfuckers! ‘Cause the worst you’ve got wouldn’t add up to be the toilet paper to wipe the ass of what I’ve had to endure today! So either put the fuck up or leave me the hell alone you chickenshit bastard fucks!!!”

Or something along those lines. Probably with more expletives. Whatever was really said, it worked… or so I thought. Re-lighting the living room candles, I found a blessed bottle of tequila that had rolled beneath the china cabinet and survived the trip intact and made it my new best friend. Then I went back to the bedroom.

Turns out the demons were saving the best for last and they were waiting for me in there.

Back in the bedroom was an eerie scene to say the least. The flickering candle flames cast a muted light that moved in jerks and stops against the deep blue of the walls and ceiling, making it seem as if I was underwater.

From the kitchen I could hear the latest repetitive reports continuing from the radio, but it seemed as if the voices were another dimension away. Shadows were everywhere dancing in the room, and it wouldn’t take long before an aftershock moved the floor beneath me as if something big and bad was down there and hungry and coming for me.

I tried deep breaths to calm myself, but even at my most relaxed and rational state, my heart still pounded in my chest, and I was poised to bolt at the drop of a pin. But still I wouldn’t quit. I didn’t care if it killed me, I was going to finish what I started, and I was but a bookshelf and some books and toys and broken glass away from doing so.

I dove in to the pile and started stacking some of the books off to the side. The aftershocks would come and go, but eventually I got into a focused groove and had cleared a path to the bookcase. But in the middle of my attempt to upright it, it happened.

Something in the room… spoke. From somewhere under the bed came a voice, and it said something. What? I have no idea. It was muffled and unintelligible, almost like a growl. But whatever made the sound was unmistakably in there with me among the dancing shadows that played upon the walls and ceiling, the flickering candle flame, and the moans and sighs of the unsettled house.

I froze, every hair at attention, holding the bookcase at a diagonal to the floor like the American flag being raised on Iwo Jima in the famous World War II photo. Inhaling a deep breath, I held it. I felt my pulse in my temple and I prayed it was just my imagination playing tricks on me.

Then came the voice again — and again it was an unintelligible mumbling, but immediately followed by one of the larger aftershocks to hit that day. Gone was my hold on the bookcase and gone was I from where I had been standing. I don’t know if I screamed during my retreat beyond the doorway into the hallway, more scared of the muffled ogre now living under my bed than of the roof falling on top of me. I know I screamed when the candles in the bedroom tipped one by one and went out with pathetic tiny hisses.

With the wocka-wocka monster gathering steam somewhere in the walls of the living room, I didn’t even have to look behind me to know the candles in there would be failing as well. I didn’t want to look behind me. I couldn’t. But I could feel the darkness that filled the void left by their snuffing out. It enveloped me and I felt suffocated. Lamely I fumbled in my pocket for my Mini-Mag flashlight crazily expected the grasp of a cold, dead hand to wrap around my ankle or my neck and start pulling me down and down.

So paralyzed with fear was I that it took me some time to comprehend the latest aftershock had passed. Strangely I missed the movement as it had become the lesser of two evils — almost comforting in the face of this newest fright. Wide-eyed into the darkness I awaited the appearance of a pair of burning red eyes piercing the cloak and severing whatever remained of my sanity.

Finally I recognized the feel of the flashlight in my and turned it on, pointing its paltry beam in the direction of the bed. There were no evil eyes blinking at me. No bony hands grabbing at me. Just the mess that remained in the bedroom and the darkness and the silence.

The relief flooded through me like water through a broken dam, sweeping away the chills that coursed about me and plowing the hair on my legs, arms and head back to their resting positions. Taking a deep breath for the sigh of my life, I cut it off mid-exhale.

“Mmph flph gnsh shgnzz…” came again from beneath the bed and all hair returned to positions of attention. I forced myself to rationalize but could come up with nothing despite trying hard to put aside the absolute incongruity of something speaking somewhere down there. The only thing that registered was that it wasn’t in my head and it didn’t sound particularly menacing or distressed.. Kind of casual and relaxed, actually. Almost conversational.

“Who the fuck are you?” I asked, voice quivering. No reply came. About a half a minute passed and I hadn’t moved while keeping the light trained around the bed.

“Mlll fwsh tepee mgglmi frdz…” it said.

“What the fuck!?” I countered desparately, then no sound.

Another half a minute passed. It felt like an hour.

“Giii ulvvvv ooooo…”

And in a beat I knew what I had to do. Just as I’d earlier fought back the urge to abandon the place, and later made my expletive-strafed stand in the living room. The time had come to go on the offensive. No more standing around and waiting this thing out. There may be a portal to hell cracked open under my bed with the devil calling for me, but the time had come to take control and conquer this thing head-on or die trying.

I sidestepped to my left toward the nearest candle trying to stop my hands from shaking enough to successfully strike a match. Having finally reignited it, the gremlin let me know it heard me.

“Etz rsshhha jeeeem.”

And with that, I took a huge pull of tequila and dove into the pile, tossing and shoving and casting books and CDs and pictures and broken glass and clothes and my daughters toys aside. At some point I heard a snarling, kind of a low and evil. It took me a moment to realize the sound was coming from me.

Charging forward and shoveling more crap away and behind me, overdosing on adrenaline and with my heart in my throat, I launched the bookcase up off the bed where it banged against the wall and came to rest in the upright position that it had last been in some 14 hours ago.

Standing over the bed I bent over and curled my fingers under the box spring, daring whatever waited beneath to tear them to shreds. Sweating and breathing hard, I summoned my strength to step across the threshold into madness and confront this babbling gatekeeper that I imagined would be awaiting at the mouth of an expressway to hell — a pulsing white hot tunnel dropping into infinity and ready to swallow me whole.

I yelled, “No more hide and seek you sonofabitch! Time to dance!” And with a clean-and-jerk motion that elevated the box spring and mattress up and over on its side against the south wall of the room I balled up my fists and prepared for battle.

And there it was at my feet. Purple and green and grotesque and flat on its back looking up at me with what might be surmised to be a surprised look in its eyes. But it wasn’t a demon. It wasn’t a monster. And it wasn’t beckoning me down into some pit of eternal despair. It was laying there not next to some hellfire-filled gaping maw, but instead on the blue-and-white area rug.

It was Barney. It was fucking Barney.

More specifically, it was my daughter’s talking Barney doll — a Christmas present from the previous month that she had decided to leave here under the bed during her last weekend visit with me.

Apparently the movement of the bed and the weight of the bookcase and then my exertions in cleaning the room up had shifted things enough to trigger the pressure point that enables it to say any of several phrases, all of which in my bugged-out state came off as incomprehensible gibberish.

And as I stood there processing the reality and the relief, I slowly unclenched my fists and it spoke to me, this time unencumbered and loud and clear.

It said simply and in that way that only Barney can:”I love you.”

And in that simple declaration the tears came, and along with them huge body-wracking sobs as I dropped to my knees in exhaustion and exhilarated relief and scooped Barney up to hold him close and hug him for all I was worth.

“Hello from me to all my friends!” He said next, and I lay down on the floor and held him even tighter even through a small aftershock rumbled forth that earlier in the day would have sent me running for a doorway.

Now, it didn’t even phase me.

For several minutes I rested on the floor with Barney sitting on my chest as I relaxed and composed myself. Propping him up in a corner by the lighted candle, the tears had turned into guffaws as I had to laugh in spite of myself.

Though I had never been a big fan of the goofy dinosaur and his TV show, my daughter certainly was and had put the talking doll near the top of her Christmas list. I begrudgingly obliged her — and now was damn glad I did.

“I love you,” he said again, and I got up on my feet.

Returning the bedroom from its chaotic state liked a man possessed, I then grabbed Barney and what remained of the Cuervo before dousing the candles and heading back into the living room for what would be the longest night of my life stationed on the couch and jumping out of my skin and into the kitchen doorway at the slightest hint of a temblor.

I prayed for the city and its citizens. I grieved for those lost and displaced. I was thankful my mother wasn’t here for any of it and I sang “Amazing Grace” and recited the 23rd Psalm and listened to the same news reports I’d already heard dozens of times through the course of the day.

Eventually the tequila I’d finished worked its magic and I drifted into a fitful few hours of sleep. When I awoke (oddly enough at 4:31 a.m.) the following morning, Barney was clutched tightly in my arms. He’d saved my sanity. He was my hero. He went with me wherever I moved throughout the house.

My daughter long ago outgrew the talking Barney doll. But despite several moves, I never could bring myself to discard him. Ten years later, I have him still, both as a reminder of that horrible night and a testament as to how I got through it.