Earthquake Anniversary – Remembering The Little Things

By Anita Garner

Italo ”Itsie” Orlandi in his workshop, Mill Valley, CA

It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 1994 at 4:31 AM. when the Northridge earthquake changed our lives. I was awake and had just taken a few steps down the hall to work on a writing deadline when I was knocked to the floor. I’ve never been able to adequately describe the sound. The closest would be a train roaring through the house.

My condo on Valleyheart Drive in Studio City slid off its foundation, taking wires and plumbing and appliances with it, spewing furniture and the contents of cupboards and shelves over every surface.

Neighbors ran door to door shutting off gas lines, yelling inside to find out if we were trapped.  My front door was jammed. Men forced it open and when they saw I was okay they asked if I had anything they could use to break some glass to rescue my next door neighbor.  Bridget was screaming that she couldn’t get out. One helper directed his flashlight into my dark living room and located my chunky redwood bench. They used it to batter through Bridget’s sliding glass door. The last time I saw her, they were lifting her away from the broken glass and walking her out to the street.  I heard she moved back to France.

People gathered on the sidewalk and wrapped blankets around the ones who weren’t fully dressed.  I slept in a tee shirt and leggings and found sneakers just inside my front door.  Many were not so lucky.  Not everyone had shoes and the ground was already deep in debris.  Glass was everywhere.  The Valley filled up with sirens and random explosions. A building on one side of mine had very little damage while the building on the other side, a high rise, was seriously off kilter.  Neighbors rushed to carry injured residents down flights of stairs, securing them to straight back chairs for the journey to the sidewalk to await ambulances.

It’s 27 years later and the details are still shocking. Everyone lost something.  Some lost everything.  Reports said if it hadn’t been a holiday, if it hadn’t been before dawn, more people would have been out and about and more would have died.

Before the quake I was a collector of antique glassware, vintage goblets with slender stems and designs etched long ago in deep colors, elaborate depression glass table settings, Baccarat candlesticks, old lamps with delicate bases.  When I fell to the floor that morning I crawled to the living room, reaching for the built-in bar to hold onto.  As I approached, my brilliant glassware on shelves above the bar turned into projectiles, forcing tiny shards into my skin. For weeks I picked out colorful bits.  There’s a green one, now a purple one.  Much of what I owned and lived with and  loved broke, slivered, exploded, splintered, cracked, ripped, or shook to pieces.  A huge antique armoire fell across the bed I had just vacated.  I didn’t know that until a FEMA walk-through later.

After the house was red-tagged, when we were no longer allowed in because the ground kept shifting, I bought a few things, a set of dishes, a coffee maker, I don’t remember what all because replacing things was simply a reaction to loss and not a wish to own and preserve possessions. I have no desire to collect fragile things anymore and I’m wary of antiques.  You fall in love with them and they can break your heart

Now I’m drawn to rustic furnishings and pride of place goes to the short, stubby, redwood bench.  It was already old when I bought it in the 80s at Dowd’s Barn in Mill Valley. When I moved south  to do a radio show in Los Angeles, the bench came too.  After the quake, when I returned to Mill Valley, I lived a few minutes away from dear friend, Itsie.  A quick walk from my cottage in Blithedale Canyon took me over the Corte Madera Creek bridge to his hilltop home in the neighboring canyon.  Itsie’s house was built in the redwoods in the early 1900’s with multiple levels, including a fully equipped workshop on the bottom floor. He noticed my little bench was wobbly and took it home with him. The supports you see below the bench in the picture above were added from Itsie’s stash of redwood.

The conscious mind makes note of this anniversary every year then moves along but the subconscious still startles me awake during thunderstorms or when a truck rumbles by on a normally quiet street.  If one day the sound of a train roars through the living room and the floor moves so violently I can’t stand, if something like that happens again in my lifetime and I have to start over, I’ll begin with this bench.

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8 thoughts on “Earthquake Anniversary – Remembering The Little Things”

  1. We were in Sacramento. We were shopping for a lamp at AA. The lamps were up a walkway so that’s where we were. All the hanging lamps began to sway forcefully and the walkway was swerving. Down we came, in a hurry!
    Your memories and ptsd reminds me of what I experienced when the federal levees in New Orleans failed. For years I would reach for something then realize, oh, that got lost in the flood. Like you, I didn’t buy to accumulate but to replace. I swore I would never amass things but alas that didn’t hold. Now I have two households of ‘stuff’!

  2. Here in California we watched the waters rising around you in New Orleans. Different but the same devastation. I’m still drawn to antiques and fragile glass beauty, but I haven’t felt about them quite the same as before, and buy very little.

  3. Those are rather terrifying memories. I remember that morning very well, for we lived in La Canada. Stephen was young and Chuck and I looked like linebackers as we tried to get to Stephen’s room, but the second we flung open the door, we simultaneously smiled and said, “Hi, honey, we’re having a little adventure! Why don’t we all crawl under your bed?” (There was room for that.) As Chuck picked up Stephen, I looked around. “Where’s Flower?” I said, searching for the dog. I lifted up the blankets so Stephen could crawl under, and there was Flower, curled up in the far corner beneath the bed, wearing a look on her face that clearly said, “What the hell took you so long?” Even though the house was still shaking, we laughed.

    The worst part for me was the aftershocks. Days of them and there were so many. Each time, we froze and wondered how strong it would get. By the way, we don’t have earthquakes in Arkansas! I’m good with that.

  4. Lisa, I love that you were all together and intact, even under the bed. The aftershocks! One of them happened while a group of us were having lunch after church in a Valley restaurant. The whole place emptied. We all left our food and ran outside, stayed awhile, then returned and ate lunch. As you know, this happened over and over again. Nice that you’re now quake-safe in Arkansas.

  5. Terrifying. It’s a primary reason I never wish to live in Southern California again. Rode out some 4 and 6 magnitude quakes during our time there but “The Big One” is still out there. I fear for our kids there.

  6. Dave, it’s true. Living in California requires living in denial because no amount of earthquake preparedness kits can match the power of the big ones.

  7. What a terrifying experience and so vividly told here. I remember the hours you sat with FEMA too trying to make your report. It was one hot mess all around. Love this picture of Itsie.

  8. Sueann, yes it was hours in line at a park in Sherman Oaks for my initial appointment with FEMA. I remember one form asked, how many lamps? There was no space to write in details about what made the thing special. No place to describe how one beautiful lamp had a burgundy glass base with white etching and a vintage silk shade. Just fill in how many were destroyed. I became even more of a thrift shop fan after that.

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