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Witness Account

Rescue workers walk past the Northridge Meadows Apartments that collapsed during the earthquake in Los Angeles, Ca., Jan. 17, 1994.
© Eric Draper/AP Wide World

Jillian Gordon was 11 years old when the 1994 Northridge, California earthquake hit. Her Van Nuys home was only 6 miles from where the earthquake was the strongest.

By Jillian Gordon (as told to her uncle, David George Gordon)

My family and I were sleeping on the morning of January 17, 1994 ó at least until 4:31 a.m., when our house started shaking.

Iíd lived through earthquakes before, so this experience wasnít new to me. In the past, Iíd told myself that earthquakes were just a part of growing up in southern California. However, this particular earthquake was much more powerful and lasted a lot longer than any Iíd ever felt before.

The shaking lasted about 15 or 20 seconds. Thatís a long time when youíre sitting in bed, listening to the windows rattle and watching everything in the room bounce around. Even my bed was wiggling from side to side. In fact, the house was rocking so wildly that my mother couldnít walk down the hall to my bedroom without stumbling.

By the time Mom reached me, the quake had stopped.† She led my little sister and me through the living room and out to the patio behind our house. All the electricity had gone off in our neighborhood, so we lit candles to help us see in the early morning darkness.

Once we were settled, my dad and mom took a walk around the block to see if anyone needed their help. Dad said that some of the houses on our block were in bad shape, with big cracks on their sides. On a few, the walls had crumbled. From the street, you could see inside these homes.

Fires can start after an earthquake when buried natural gas lines break.

Dad also told us about several fires that had started when the earthquake caused the buried natural gas lines to break. In some places, my dad said the flames were shooting 10 or 15 feet into the air. The police and fire departments were extra busy, working to keep people safe and to put out the fires.

Later we learned that the Northridge Earthquake was one of the worse to hit the Los Angeles basin. It killed 57 people and injured about 9,000. If the earthquake hadnít happened so early in the morning, when most people were still in bed, still more could have been killed or injured.

More than 30,000 homes were badly damaged by the earthquake. Thousands of people had no other places to stay, so they moved into special shelters set up by the Red Cross and other groups. Some people weree so discouraged that they moved away from the Los Angeles area, never to return.

Earthquakes can cause a mess!
Photo: NOAA

We were lucky, because the damage to our home was slight. The earthquake had knocked things out of our kitchen cabinets, and I remember that the ground was covered with broken glass. A huge bucket of plastic beads had fallen from one shelf, scattering its contents all over the place. Years after the quake, we were still picking up stray beads from that event.

About a minute after the main earthquake, we felt the ground shudder again. That was one of the stronger aftershocks ó one of several thousand that earthquake experts measured in the days afterward.

Eventually, we went back inside our house and made beds with blankets and pillows on the living room floor. The next day, January 18, was a national holiday, so there was no school scheduled for my sister and me. Because the earthquake had destroyed so many roads and buildings, people couldnít get to work or go to school. Most schools in the Los Angeles area stayed closed for several weeks.

We continued to feel the aftershocks from the earthquake weeks after school had started again.† We had been having earthquake safety drills ever since I started school in Van Nuys. Now those drills were for real. I was especially glad to be better prepared for the next earthquake ó whenever that might be.