CITYWIDE — At 4:30 a.m. 20 years ago today a 6.7-magnitude earthquake struck the Los Angeles region.
The most intense and most publicized damage was out in the San Fernando Valley, but Santa Monica was hit anomalously hard given its distance from the epicenter.
The structure of the adjacent Santa Monica Mountains focused the Northridge earthquake’s seismic energy on the city by the sea like a lens, said Dr. Thomas Jordan, director of the Southern California Earthquake Center at USC.
Santa Monica’s soft soil and older building stock may have contributed to the devastation.
What’s clear is that the town was hit hard.
More than 1,600 housing units were damaged costing $70 million, according to a 2004 report by the California Policy Research Center. Both of the hospitals and St. Monica’s Catholic Church required massive rebuilding efforts. The collapse of parts of Interstate 10 made Santa Monica hard to access for rescue workers and the press.
Residents, city officials, and public safety workers had to fend for themselves for hours. This is the story of the massive earthquake and its impact in their words.
In the beginning
GREG SMILEY, Santa Monica Police Department officer. He was in his first year on the job. Today he’s a sergeant. My partner and I had just gotten off our shift. Just as we walked out the front doors of the station, the earthquake hit. Both of us ran across the parking lot to get away from that old building. We both put our hands on the hood of one of the police cars and it was bouncing so hard that I thought it was going to come off the ground. Then — and this is what makes me remember the earthquake so much — I looked up in the sky and, pure coincidence, there’s this brilliant shooting star. And for a brief moment I thought, “This is the end of the world.”
CARINE CONWAY, neonatal intensive care unit nurse at Saint John’s Health Center. The power went out. All the windows shattered. The monitors bolted to the walls tilted and were hanging. There was plaster hanging everywhere. Because of the dust, all of the alarms went off. It was spooky. You were in the complete dark and there was just dust floating around. The wind was coming through the windows.
ADAM GWARTZ, Santa Monica Police Department dispatcher. He was 23 at the time. I was in the basement of the old police station. One of the dispatchers was on lunch break and I was shooting the breeze with the other. The pre-shock hit — and it was just a little bump — but he just dove under the desk to my left. And just as I was teasing him the big one hit. So I jumped under there with him and everything in com center, all the filing cabinets and the ceiling tiles, it fell all over the floor.
WENDELL SHIRLEY, Santa Monica Police Department officer. He graduated from the police academy on Dec. 16, 1993 and was in his first month on the job. Today he’s a captain. I was living in Northridge at the time, directly across the street from the one apartment complex that collapsed to like a one-story. I have never been so scared in my life. I’ll admit it. All you can do is scream because you had no idea what was going on and when it was going to stop. Words can’t explain. The scariest part was looking outside and anticipating the impact. My apartment complex was just damaged pretty bad. You could hear people talking and just a real ruckus.
The first hour
GWARTZ: What’s funny is that 911 didn’t really start ringing right away. You would think it would just blow up the phones but it took a few minutes for that to happen. It was a delay and then they all came at once. We were just getting into it. We got radio. We got 911. We’re trying to answer calls. And then I remember looking at my screen and it was like the “Twilight Zone.” All the computer screens went black, to a dot. The radio went out. Everything electrical went out.
JUDY ABDO, Santa Monica mayor. Today she is the chair of the Santa Monica Pier Corp. board. I was awakened by the earthquake as everyone was and we had no electricity for a while so it was kind of hard to do anything.
CONWAY: We had five babies and we took them to the emergency room downstairs. We disconnected all the tubing and we left the unit. I myself carried twins in my jacket like a kangaroo.
GWARTZ: We went to the command post, which … was a converted 1970s motor home that they had gotten from asset forfeiture. So it was some old clunky, stinky thing. That’s how we were running the city: With a board and a little hand mic that you’d have in a police car.
SHIRLEY: I was a young rookie so I just went in. You couldn’t make calls. I drove in and showed up. They put me with a senior officer. We went on patrol of the city and Santa Monica was just a mess.
DR. WALLY GHURABI, Head of the ER at UCLA Medical Center Santa Monica, The old nine-story building was severely damaged. From the outside there were cracks big enough that you could drive a truck through them. We couldn’t use it.
GWARTZ: One of our repeaters wasn’t working so that morning I was assigned to go fix it. It was at the top of the 100 Wilshire Building, the tallest in Santa Monica. I got there and the elevators weren’t working so I had to climb up 21 flights of stairs. The bluffs had given way at some point and had covered PCH. From up there it didn’t look much different. There were plumes of smoke here and there.
IRENE BRISTOL, nursing director of the cardiac floor at Saint John’s Health Center. Today she’s a member of the hospital’s foundation. We had so many cracks everywhere. Big cracks. You walked through my unit, the heart floor, to another area in the hospital and the terrazzo tile had come apart. We were hopping over the tile to get to the unit. We don’t have brick but we had cement. It just cracked in half.
BARBARA BREITMAN Red Cross volunteer and licensed therapist. I drove down San Vicente and I remember a lot of apartment buildings that were damaged and cracked. The structures fell and the windows were out. It was a scary feeling.
MARK BRIDGES, Santa Monica Fire Department captain. He was 34. Today he’s a battalion chief. We had to search the floors of those collapsed apartment buildings on San Vicente because they kind of pancake collapsed.
SMILEY: You could have one street that was no problem and the next street was demolished. And our station at the time got hit hard.
BRIDGES: At three of the fire stations, the doors shifted a little bit and the guys had to actually break the doors down to get out. There were gas leaks causing fires.
ABDO: Around La Cienega the 10 [Freeway] fell. That was part of the reason that the word wasn’t out that Santa Monica had a great deal of damage because the press couldn’t get here as easily.
Loss of life
GHURABI: We lost electricity here in the ER. One of the patrols cars, we opened the ambulance doors, sliding doors, and let the SMPD guy shine the light into the ER so we could see what we were doing.
BRIDGES: I was supposed to go to Santa Monica College with the Red Cross and set up a causality treatment area. As I’m driving in toward the college it reminded me of a horror movie because I see people walking around bleeding. Like blood coming down their face, holding broken arms, and it was just one of those surreal kind of things. You could very well stop and put a Band-Aid on somebody’s head but someone else could be bleeding to death somewhere else. It’s hard to prioritize.
BRISTOL: So many of our neighbors in the Santa Monica area came to the north lawn [of Saint John’s] with cuts and bruises and just a variety of things. We set up a M.A.S.H. tent for the walking wounded and a lot of my friends were out there helping.
CONWAY: Postpartum nurses were giving pain shots in the hospital parking lot. It was like a war zone.
GHURABI: Most of our common injuries were from glass, cut feet, and things falling and hitting them in the head or arm. TVs that were not anchored.
SHIRLEY: It was chaos. I remember us going to an apartment complex; that was my first dead body call I’d gotten. The gentleman had passed away in his pickup truck, apparently from a heart attack, underneath the carport in his driver’s seat, sitting up.
GHURABI: We had one death in the ER. That was a guy who just got so scared from the earthquake and went into cardiac arrest. We saw maybe 250 patients that day. On a really busy night we’ll usually see 145. It was probably the busiest day in my career as an ER doc and I’ve been doing this for almost 35 years.
GHURABI: We lost power. All the patients that were on ventilators had to be moved. Elevators don’t work so we had to carry them down from the fourth, sixth, seventh, eighth floor down.
BRIDGES: One engine was dealing with an apartment building that was fully involved at Euclid and Idaho. It was starting to catch other apartments on fire. The engine there was asking for help and there was no help. So they ended up having citizens pull off hose and hold nozzles. I went by there and it seemed like they had things kind of under control so I’d just go on to the next emergency.
GHURABI: All of the conference rooms were not conference rooms anymore. They were patient rooms. We cleaned all the conference rooms and put beds in there.
BREITMAN: In the shelter at Santa Monica High School there were mothers and daughters and fathers and sons and people whose buildings were red tagged and they weren’t allowed to go back. That was my first experience with the Red Cross. It was probably the best thing I ever did.
ABDO: I went to City Hall in the morning and helped answer phone calls as they came in. It was a holiday, Martin Luther King’s birthday, and so nothing was normal.
GWARTZ: The range of calls was, “Hey, did you know the magnitude of that?” to people calling in with legitimate things. Actual criminal activity was very low. People were just in shock and your basic criminal activities kind of ceased or became less of a priority to people who were dealing with the quake. People were doing pretty good.
BRIDGES: We saw a lot of citizens just pitching in and doing stuff that they probably thought they could never do. Forming bucket brigades and search and rescue teams. Fortunately the water system stayed intact so we were able to use fire hydrants. If we weren’t able to it would have been way worse.
BREITMAN: There were easily 100 people (at the Santa Monica High School auditorium) with cots and blankets. There were restaurants in the Santa Monica area that would come by and donate food. I would just go around and talk to these people who were traumatized. All they wanted to do was talk. They didn’t feel safe and they just wanted to go home.
BRIDGES: On the second floor of the John Wayne Cancer Center they had a huge laboratory. There were live cultures laying on the floor and running down the stairs. We put down some bags of absorbent sand to try to contain it. Because there was so much acetone and alcohol, the flammable limit was really high. If that were the only emergency we were dealing with we’d have had a lot fire engines there. We’d have a lot of people. We’d deal with it. There was nothing available except us. So we just went around breaking windows with flashlights to release flammable gases.
GHURABI: Everyone was helping out. We had brain surgeons cleaning wounds asking, “What can we do for you, Wally?”
GHURABI: During the aftershock there were a lot of anxiety stays. Benzos all over the place to calm people down.
BRISTOL: [Saint John’s was] open for about a week before they yellow-tagged us and said out.
ABDO: During that week, President Clinton decided to come out to California to look at what had happened and there was a very large meeting that took place in an airport hangar in Burbank. The people who were invited were elected officials only. It was quite a feat driving to Burbank, trying to figure out which roads were open. I raised my hand to speak and they brought me a microphone at this giant meeting and I stood up and said that Santa Monica had a great deal of damage, that I understood that a bunch of people didn’t really know that, but my concern was that if the funding came through the city of L.A. then it won’t be coming to Santa Monica and the other cities in the region. I didn’t know that it was on live nationwide TV. But the people on the dais knew that. From that point on the way that the emergency funds would get to Santa Monica, or to anybody, changed. And it became a very different kind of program of emergency response, which was really good for us.
BRIDGES: Once I left home the morning of the earthquake, I didn’t go home for two weeks after that.
GHURABI: I slept (at the hospital). I didn’t go home for a couple days. That’s really, I think, the time we first started having a relationship with UCLA. The 1994 earthquake took pretty much all our docs and the Saint John’s docs and there was no room. Our docs started taking patients over to Westwood and it grew from there. The ‘94 earthquake brought us together. That’s one benefit!
BRIDGES: We have our own Hazmat team now. We have our own search and rescue team. We’re a lot better equipped to handle emergencies. But still, like they say, it falls back on the citizens. They could be on their own for up to 72 hours.
To learn more about how to be prepared in the event of an earthquake, visit City Hall’s Office of Emergency Management at www.smgov.net. It’s recommended that residents have enough food and water to last for up to seven days.
An emergency preparedness kit should include food, water, bedding, medications, pet preparedness materials, and other items you rely on.
It is also recommended to sign up for SM Alerts, a notification system to keep people informed during an emergency. Visit www.smalerts.net and sign up today.