“On Shaky Ground”: Living Through the 1994 Northridge Earthquake
To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Northridge earthquake, we asked friends and colleagues to share stories and memories from the early morning of Jan. 17, 1994 — and the aftermath.
I was only 5 when the earthquake hit, and I managed to stay asleep until the tail end of it when books started falling to the floor. I’m sure there was some panic among my family, but all I remember is feeling very dutiful, finding my cats, and making sure my American Girl doll, Samantha, had a comfortable seat on the chair in my room. Of course this meant I had to sit on the floor, but she was obviously very scared and needed the comfort of the best seat in the house. Adding to my sense of duty, my radio was the only one that worked since it was for a child and battery operated. We gathered around the red and blue plastic box and listened for any news as I quieted down the still hysterical Samantha.
I was 8 and asleep in my parents’ bed when the earthquake hit. I knew what was happening but didn’t know earthquakes were a deadly thing; mortality was a bit too much for me at that age. After it ended, I remember my parents getting out their radio and turning it on for emergency information. Once aftershocks subsided, my dad grabbed a flashlight and walked around to check on neighbors. We are Portland natives so my parents were familiar with having to boil water and live without power.
I lived in Encino, a few miles from the epicenter, but my school was in Northridge. I was out of school for a week as they waited for a building inspector to come clear the school. Driving around I remember the California State University, Northridge (CSUN) parking structure wall that just pancaked in and seeing red, yellow, and green tags on buildings everywhere. My house had minimal damage, a small crack and lots of broken bottles and glass. People were selling commemorative T-shirts saying things like “I Survived the 6.9 Quake” on street corners, which in retrospect seems tacky as people did die.
I was 12 years old. I woke up five minutes before the quake, which was unusual since I normally slept through the night. I stared at the ceiling waiting to fall back asleep and then the world started to shake around me. It felt amazing. The following day at school I bragged about my keen senses and earthquake-predicting abilities. I was convinced it would make me popular and respected. Another student told me his dogs knows when earthquakes are coming too. By the end of the school day, I went from the seventh-grader who would save Southern California from the big one to the kid who predicts earthquakes because his parents are werewolves. It was a social disaster: a magnitude 7.0, with aftershocks that lasted into my freshman year of high school.
At 3:30 a.m. my two dogs started to bark. For one whole hour they barked and paced around the house. Anxious. Frantic. Even at a tender young age of 8, I appreciated the value of a full night’s sleep, but the whole house was wide awake. When the ground shook there wasn’t that desperate I’m-falling-out-of-a-bad-dream feeling. I remember all of it. It felt like a long time. It felt like it might never stop. That we’d have to get used to living on shaky ground. When it stopped we were lucky. Up on a hill in Malibu only picture frames shifted on the walls. However, my grandmother’s house a few miles down the coast in Santa Monica wasn’t so lucky. I remember going school that day like normal. The teachers maybe a little jumpy from the aftershocks. As kids who grow up around natural disasters — the 1993 wildfire taking 739 houses just a few months before — it seemed pretty standard to talk about where we were. Did you run out of the house? Did you duck under a desk? Stand under a doorway? (By the way, I’m pretty sure that’s not recommended anymore.) But maybe it’s only normal for young kids from Malibu to share those kinds of disaster stories over recess.
More than anything, I just remember the noise. It started off quietly, like two wineglasses accidentally touching a bit too hard during a toast. By the time I opened my eyes it was an all-out war. Glass on glass at full strength, covering the floor, shattering eardrums. I could hear my parents yelling but it was too loud to make anything out.
I remembered being told to stand under a doorframe, so I did that. And then about three seconds later I realized how crazy it was to be indoors and I ran wildly through the house and into the backyard, where my family all eventually came to their senses, escaped their doorframes, and congregated. We stayed outside until the sun came up, and I wondered how long it would be before I had to go to school again. I had a book report I was nowhere close to finished with.
I was at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., about 40 miles away from the epicenter of the earthquake, but it was powerful enough to throw me out of bed. While frightening, it was also entertaining — I was an RA with master keys and had to make sure that all students in the dorm had evacuated. So I couldn’t help but notice who was sleeping where, and with whom!
I had to step over my one-eyed goldfish named Cooter to get to the hallway (RIP Cooter). My sister who is hard of hearing slept through the whole damn thing like a champ. As was typical for a Santa Clarita cul-de-sac in the early ’90s, I was surrounded by about 15 of my closest friends. Our houses in desperate need of electrical and plumbing repair, we spent the next couple of nights camped out in the street in tents and sleeping bags. It is still one of the most memorable experiences of my childhood and really encapsulates the bond we shared with our neighbors.
I was living in an apartment in Palms, sleeping on a mattress on the floor because I didn’t have a bed yet. So there was nothing to fall out of when the earthquake hit at 4:31 a.m. I’d been through smaller earthquakes before, but this one just kept going. When it finally stopped, the power was out. I found a Polaroid camera and used the flash to find my way to the door.
More than anything, the day of Northridge felt like a snow day. You couldn’t go to work. You couldn’t go to school. (I was at USC at the time.) I made my way to West Hollywood, where my sort-of boyfriend had a house. We ended up on the roof of an apartment building, looking out over the city and listening to power line transformers blow. It was romantic in an apocalyptic way.
What people forget about Northridge is how many aftershocks there were. I worked on the sixth floor of a building in Santa Monica, and days later we’d have aftershocks that sent giant Xerox machines rolling across the floor.
I remember the earthquake like it was yesterday. It woke me up from a deep sleep and had I gotten out of bed even a second later, I would’ve had a broken face from the enormous glass framed painting that hung above my bed that fell and hit the frame, which then shattered into a million pieces. I remember the distinct smell of alcohol coming from the kitchen, and as my dad was walking in I can still hear my mom yelling, “Morgan! Don’t go in there until you put some shoes on!” My dad looked down to find shards of broken plates and bottles under his foot. He was so lucky. We lived in a neighborhood where all the houses had brick chimneys on the outside — most of them had collapsed due to the quake, and you could see into most of our neighbor’s homes. The one next door fell on our old Volvo, which put a huge dent in it. We had to drive with our heads down for like a week.
I remember my cousin and her husband showing up at our house at 5 a.m. in their bathrobes and nothing under them. I remember someone shitting on our lawn, but leaving their toilet paper alongside it so they couldn’t blame the dog. I remember baking cookies in a neighbor’s camper and playing road trip games with the kids from my street while we waited for night to come. I remember a lot of sleepovers on school nights. I remember a lot of broken glass and cracked houses too, but at 12 it was like an adventure to have “survived.”
Being born and raised in Los Angeles, earthquakes never really scared me. Growing up, an earthquake was basically an L.A. version of kids on the East Coast having a snow day. When the 1994 earthquake hit, I was in second grade, it was in the middle of the night, and it felt like I was on a ride in Disneyland. My parents were trying to keep their cool, even though they were scared because our chimney practically fell off our roof. However, I was surprisingly calm. The only thing I kept thinking as I huddled under our dining room table was, Please cancel school! Please cancel school! Sure enough, I got my wish and school was indeed canceled. But be careful what you wish for. I soon learned that a major earthquake in an age of no iPhones, Netflix, or Wi-Fi made for an incredibly boring aftermath, laced with spontaneous aftershocks.
The power lines were out, so we couldn’t call anyone or watch TV, which as a kid really bummed me out because it meant I couldn’t watch Clarissa Explains It All. Plus, there was such a mess everywhere. My clothes fell out of my closet, our dishes fell out of the cabinets leaving shards of glass all over the floor. I remember the first two days after the earthquake just refolding my clothes and helping my parents clean up the mess. It was only when I was a little older that I understood how major the earthquake really was, and what a jerk I was for complaining about missing Clarissa when people actually lost their lives.
I woke up on Jan. 17, 1994, from what I thought was a dream. The dream was that I was on a roller coaster that had run off the tracks; the reality was almost worse. I was thrown from my bed by the violent shaking of the earthquake. The roof in the corner of my bedroom was bouncing up and down away from the walls. Furniture was literally flying through the air. It felt like an eternity. My parents had to break into my room through debris that had piled against the door. We crawled downstairs amid the horrible aftershocks and finally made it out to the backyard. Luckily I had found a pair of cowboy boots to wear, which is the only reason my feet didn’t get cut up from the glass. My parents and I camped out in a trailer in front of our house for weeks, but the really crazy thing was that I started filming The Little Rascals just a few days after the quake. People joke about a movie set being their “home” during filming, but in my case the locations literally became home. I remember asking the hair and makeup team to wash my hair in the shampoo bowl because I didn’t have running water during the first week of filming.
After the mirrors shattered, I remember sitting on the stairs watching the pool water shift left and right independently of the pool. My grandmother told me she was proud of me for not crying, so I wiped away the tear pooling in my right eye.
The thing I remember most about the Northridge earthquake was telling my parents that God had ruined my birthday. I was 11 years old and I had 10 of my closest girlfriends over for a sleepover party in our home in central Los Angeles. Since we wanted to prove how grown-up we were, we announced that we would be sleeping in the empty pool house, scrunching up our sleeping bags next to each other on the carpeted floor. We did the truth-or-dare thing, we did the horror story thing, and eventually we must have fallen asleep.
The next thing I remember is the ground shaking. Being an L.A. girl, it wasn’t my first time at the earthquake show. But the disorientation of waking up to rapid jolts of the ground in an unfamiliar room with 10 screaming girls around me was too much. I think I just sat there watching my friends run in circles. Eventually, someone tried to open the door but couldn’t since we forgot we had locked it — to keep the pesky, eavesdropping parents out. So there was more screaming while other girls tried the door and concluded that we were trapped. It was still dark outside and we couldn’t turn the lights on. I have no idea how long it took for my dad to get there, but I remember his silhouette in the door and his calm voice instructing us to calmly walk to the house. Of course, we panicked and ran. One friend didn’t have her glasses on and made a beeline straight for the pool, where water was sloshing out like waves coming up out of the ocean. My dad yanked her out and carried her into the house, where we all sat on the living room floor, shrieking at each aftershock that hit. My parents served out the cupcakes we were supposed to sing “Happy Birthday” over the next day, and I wept as each friend’s parent came to pick them up and take them home.
By 7 a.m., the last of my friends was gone. “It’s not fair, God ruined my birthday with the earthquake,” I said, sobbing, in my most dramatic, 11-year-old-birthdays-are-the-most-important-thing-in-the-world-and-now-mine-is-ruined style. And my mom — or my dad, I can’t remember which — said, “This will be a birthday you’ll never forget. When you grow up you’ll appreciate that.”
You get blasé about earthquakes in Southern California. Seriously. I rarely even react for under a 4. But this was different. I was in a dingbat apartment in the Sawtelle area. You know the ones with the parking underneath the apartments, so you’re supported by thin poles and hope? It lasted long enough I thought it might not end. I was scared, even before the transformer outside my window exploded in a giant flash of green. I was too scared to run outside like some of my friends did. They saw Santa Monica Boulevard undulating like a snake, down as far as they could see.
I lived in the above-the-carport apartment of a mid-city dingbat — so during the earthquake I was sleeping on stilts, essentially. Luckily the building had been retrofitted a while back and instead of snapping, those support columns swayed like palm trees. I was thrown out of my bed, but suffered no injuries or damage save for a broken picture frame. I had been in L.A. for five years, and had been through a number of mild quakes, but clearly nothing of this magnitude. This was before the widespread use of cell phones, and everyone in the neighborhood started wandering around outside in the dark, asking if people were OK, and if anyone had a dial tone. I vaguely recall reaching my parents in Texas to let them know I was all right. Eventually the sun came up and I went back to my apartment to retrieve my prayer gear (tefillin, prayer book, etc.). As I walked to a local synagogue a couple of women called to me, in Hebrew, to “pray for us.” Whether they meant just the two of them or for the city in general, I have no idea. But I did my best.
I’ve always watched way too much TV, but I never realized how much of a coping mechanism it was until the earthquake hit and we lost power. Even though I was only 7, it’s one of my clearest childhood memories — not being able to go back to sleep because the aftershocks kept rolling through, and not being able to calm down because there was no TV. Eventually I settled in my parents’ bed, and we huddled around the battery-powered radio listening to other people’s earthquake stories. Radio! Who knew?
When the power came back on the next day, the first thing I did — yes, before I turned on the TV — was go onto Microsoft Encarta and watch a visualization of how earthquakes happen. Something about seeing an early ’90s computer graphics rendering of the Earth’s plates crashing against each other was comforting. At least, it made more sense than the seemingly endless shaking that had kept me up the night before.
I was 5 during the Northridge earthquake, and at the time my brother and I slept on bunk beds because we thought it was cool. When the shaking started, I began screaming for my brother to stop kicking the bed, because he’s a violent sleeper and I had no idea what was going on. My mom ran into the room and grabbed me off of the top bunk, leaving my brother (ha!), and ran me down the hall and sat with me in a doorway. The next thing I remember is looking up and my dad — who sleeps naked — was crouched over me and my mom with his dad-penis directly in my line of vision. To this day I can’t recall the shaking or the noise, just that sprint down the hallway and my father’s penis protecting his brood.
—Kristen Van Dine
I was awake when the quake happened because it was Martin Luther King Jr. weekend and we were off school. My best friend was sleeping over and we’d stayed up all night playing Mortal Kombat.
The first thing I remember is our game going out, then watching my entire house roll like it was on a sheet being shaken out to dry. It lasted long enough that my mom had time to come out to the living room and scream at us to run to the doorways. The next few days were awesome because our long weekend was extended even more due to school closures, and the aftershocks were so severe I remember watching the sidewalk on my street roll up and down in a serpentine motion. The power was out and we ate Spam and drank Kool-Aid and I shaved my legs for probably the second time ever using a bucket of water in the backyard.
I grew up in Los Angeles, so earthquakes were mostly something I had gotten used to like smog and bad traffic. In 1994 I was living in the Hollywood Hills in a bottom-floor apartment and the Northridge quake hit with such violence and ferocity that I was sure the building would pancake down on me. To this day it’s the most terrified I have ever been.
With no lights and the certainty of my imminent death, I searched around in the dark for something to wear and found a hotel robe I had recently “borrowed” and ran out to the street. I was the first one in my building outside, but I was soon joined by 50 or so neighbors — all of whom had taken the time to get fully dressed — and we all made idle conversation about how big the quake might have been, what the aftershocks might be like, and why I was wearing a hotel robe.
I was 9 years old in ‘94. Per my memory, I only woke up toward the tail end of the earthquake, and by that point my mother had already yanked my 3-year-old sister out of her bed and come into my room to grab me before the shaking had even ended. We lived up in the Hollywood Hills on a big chunk of granite, so we theoretically experienced slightly less shaking than a lot of the city. Our house escaped major damage, save for a few cracks in the drywall and the death of our cherubic water fountain in the front yard. I remember very clearly that all the drawers on all the cabinets had opened themselves, which seemed magical and mystifying. My parents’ bedroom had a fantastic view of the entire city, and I remember watching the entire city go dark, patch by patch, until nothing was lit up.
We all camped in my parents’ room for a full week, and we the kids weren’t allowed to go downstairs — Mom and Dad brought us food from the kitchen. Since we lost water pressure, I was allowed to pee in the shower, which I thought was the coolest thing ever. When city life finally resumed, I remember driving down the freeway when my mother burst into laughter. A building had been completely destroyed, and on top of the rubble lay a sign that read “Contractor School.” I didn’t really grasp the irony until years later.
I was completely traumatized. As a native Angelino (Angelina?), I grew up with earthquakes for my entire life. But this was the first one I experienced as an adult when I was living alone in my very first apartment. Growing up, when there was an earthquake, the lights would always go out (I lived in the canyon, so, you get used to that), but my mom was always there. She’d walk down the hall to my bedroom, holding a lit candle, and we’d huddle up and she’d calm me down.
This time, nobody was there to say, “Did you feel that?” So, not only was there no mom walking down the hallway with a lit candle, it was the worst earthquake I’d ever experienced. During and after the quake, my dog sounded like she was screaming — a sound I’d never heard from her before — and I was already disoriented from being thrown from my bed, but I had to crawl around the floor, amid the broken lamps (broken everything) and fallen books, trying to find my dog to make sure she was OK. It was terrifying. And I don’t know if I was more upset because I thought the world was ending or because I thought my dog was hurt (it was probably the dog thing — that was just too much), but I was shaken (pun not intended) physically and emotionally to the core. So much so, that I moved to New York three days later. It took years for me to move back to L.A. but I finally did because…it’s home. And the weather doesn’t suck.
I’d been on a first date with a record company executive. We had dinner in Hollywood, then I drove home to Santa Monica. I lived in the deco landmark building Sea Castle apartments on the beach by the Santa Monica Pier, the perfect rent-controlled, $500-a-month, fifth-floor ocean-view apartment. Joan Baez lived in the building. My life was perfect. It all changed at 4 a.m. Jan. 17.
Thrown out of bed by the quake, the walls in my apartment cracked open, I could see the ocean. My ceiling crumbled. Made it downstairs with what I could carry in a suitcase. The top two floors of the Sea Castle were completely destroyed. I was able to get my car and drive (it took me four hours) to the house of that record company executive. He lived in the hills above Sunset in a house previously owned by Axl Rose. I was grateful he offered me a place to stay, but traumatized by his Chatty Cathy doll collection. Covering every wall in his living room, mounted Chatty Cathy dolls. Vintage, multicultural, talking, non-talking. Covering his bed too. I begged off and left in a hurry. There was no second date.
The Santa Monica Fire Department allowed me back in the condemned Sea Castle six months later to retrieve belongings, but my apartment had been looted. I lost everything. FEMA gave me $1,200. I think I had PTSD for two years.
—Ned Van Zandt
I was lying in bed with my then-husband. What I didn’t know at the time was that I was pregnant. What I did know was that I was having problems with said husband. The ground started to shake. We ran to the doorway. As I stood there, holding on to the doorway, watching our TV fall to the ground, all I kept thinking was, Now what did he do?
I was 5 years old and I slept through the earthquake on the top bunk. Running outside after the quake, my parents watched the palm trees catch fire in the distance from our front yard with my 3-year-old sister clinging to my mom’s leg. Our kitchen floor was covered in maple syrup and broken plates in the morning. I remember feeling jealous that I had missed a major disaster and was left with only the bland task of cleaning up the mess. The babysitter had slept over and an iron fell on her head because she was sleeping next to the ironing board. The neighborhood was without running water for a week, so we used my neighbor’s aboveground pool for our toilets. After five days without bathing my whole family showed up at a Supercuts to get our hair washed. I had never been to a hair salon before, so it was very special.
The night before the earthquake, my parents took my sister and I to our first ever night movie. We saw The Air Up There with Kevin Bacon, so I probably should’ve known something terrible was going to happen. I was 9 years old. We lived a few miles from the epicenter. I woke up on the floor, thrown from my bed. My memories are mostly of us sitting under the doorway to my parents’ bedroom through hours of aftershocks that felt like more giant earthquakes.
Early on I remember getting excited because I looked outside and saw the sun coming up. Then my dad said that the sun doesn’t rise in that direction. My mom went upstairs and looked out to determine that a nearby gas station was on fire and it was lighting up the sky. That’s how I learned that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.
As a Woodland Hills native, I remember first hearing the noise of the earthquake’s introductory shake. I suffered from serious OCD as a child, so sleeping was intermittent, between visions of my still-living grandparents’ graves and an irrational fear of being tired the next day. (I was fun at parties.) So I was wide awake when I heard the initial cracks and snaps. Before I knew it, we were in full roll. It was violently circular, and went on for whatever seemed like forever. My baseball trophies toppled over, breaking a few into pieces, and all of my Starting Lineup figures nose-dove to the floor. My dad was running to my room when motion pulled him to the floor and an antique slot machine we had in our house, for no reason, fell onto his back, leaving a six-inch cut. When the quake ended, our neighbors’ carport had fallen onto two of their cars, almost like God’s version of impounding. Our favorite Chinese restaurant down the street split in two. And we were without water or power for eight days, bathing with pool water.
I was born and raised in Los Angeles, so earthquakes, while scary, were nothing new for me. When the Northridge earthquake hit, I instinctively knew that this was something different. I was awoken by something that sounded like a heavy train, which was immediately followed by violent shaking — it was a level of shaking I could never have imagined.
I quickly ran out of my room — doing my best to dodge falling books and knickknacks — and headed toward the hallway, where I could hear my family calling me.
Funnily enough, the most vivid memory I have of that morning is not the actual earthquake, but when it subsided. I can still picture it like it was yesterday; there was an eerie silence — except for the faint sound of car alarms going off in the distance — and just utter darkness.
I was almost 12 when the quake hit. We lived in an apartment building atop the fault line in Northridge. I remember being thrown out of bed by the sudden jolt and then grabbing my brother from his room as we ran down the hallway to our parents’ room. The hallway shook so violently from side to side, it felt like those funhouse floors that zigzag under your feet. We reached our parents and we all huddled together with a blanket over our heads as we heard creaks and groans of wooden beams bending and pipes bursting, glass shattering all around us.
I remember Mom saying over and over how much she loved us. Then it stopped. We put on some jackets and shoes and ran downstairs and outside, taking open shelter at the Catholic school across the street. The next day we went back into our apartment building through a large hole in the wall. The staircase we flew down the previous night had completely buckled and was gone. Suffice it to say our parents wouldn’t let us go back in the building after that first time, and I recall waiting by the car when they ventured back in the building and praying the building didn’t collapse while they were still inside.
When the Northridge earthquake hit, it was my turn to take home and care for the class rabbit, named Persephone. I should have been sleeping, but I wasn’t — I was reading. Or maybe I dreamed I was reading, because that’s how boring my life was. The quake hit, I screamed, my mom screamed, and Persephone kept running around in her cage. Years later, I would tell this anecdote to a poetry teacher who commented, “That is so powerful — Persephone kept running around in her cage.” I swear to god I mentioned that Persephone was a rabbit, but whatever. We all hid under the dining room table. One window broke. School was closed. When it reopened, we had to drink water out of cans. It was a lot like the Oregon Trail, which I was very fond of back then. It took some time, and lots of sleepless nights, but eventually, we were all freed from our cages.