More than the rumble of the ground, more than the crashing of furniture, more than the shouts and screams of my wife and son as they scrambled in the darkness to make sense of what had just happened early on the morning of Jan. 17, 1994, that “sssss” is the sound that remains with me to this day.
That is the sound which greeted us, once we had stumbled outside in the darkness of our mobile home in the northeast Valley. These were the initial moments of fear that gripped us the morning of the Northridge Earthquake, the moments where we were too busy making sure we were safe and relatively unhurt to even think about where was God in all of this. It was too dark to see in our power-less home and neighborhood, save for flashlights that poked about here and there as neighbors staggered into the street, in shock and in fear.
We ventured toward our gas meter, and the “sss-ing” only grew louder. We heard, incredibly, cars starting up (at least one family departed and never returned), and wondered aloud, “What are they thinking?!” A neighbor from across the street puffed on a cigarette; my wife, calmly but firmly, asked her to please put it out. “Sorry,” the neighbor said, stamping out the cigarette.
And then --- probably not more than 30 minutes after the jolt at 4:31 a.m., though it seemed like forever --- God began to make himself known, in the form of two men from the other side of the park, wrenches and cloths in hand, calling out, “Do you have a leak?” Within seconds, they had turned off the gas at our home, and soon had turned it off throughout the park.
As dawn’s light began its sleepy appearance over the city, we began to see the damage. Our rectangular-shaped home had tilted to one side and partially fallen off its supports, separating itself from our porch, which meant we (or at least me) became dizzy when walking inside on a sloping floor. Only the sliding glass door on the porch side was operable; the front and back doors were useless. It was clear that our home was not going to be our home for a good long time.
Our “things” were relatively OK. Some furniture had tipped over, some glassware had been jolted about in its cabinets and shattered --- no big deal. But our emotions and psyches were all over the place. With no phone service, we had no idea what my parents in Canoga Park or my mother- and brother-in-law in Granada Hills were dealing with.
Somewhere around 7 a.m., we decided to venture across the Valley to check up on our families. We zigged and zagged through this street and that, so that a normal 10-minute drive from our house (via freeway) to Granada Hills took more than 30. Along the way we passed St. John Baptist de La Salle Church, saw its fallen brick bell tower and, somewhat numbly, agreed that other churches in the area were likely in various stages of distress.
My in-laws were OK, but a concrete block wall had collapsed, walls and floors were cracked, and there were broken lamps, dishes, glassware everywhere. We tried using a neighbor’s cell-phone to call other family members; circuits were jammed, so no luck.
Another 45 minutes brought us to my folks’ house. Their damage was minimal, though they were without power. They offered their home as a place for us to spend however many nights we needed.
By now, it was clear to me that I would not be at work that day, or any day soon. I wondered about the rest of The Tidings staff, and prayed they were OK, but I didn’t really know. Our portable and car radios were heavy with quake coverage, especially the collapse of the Northridge Meadows apartment building, where many were killed or injured. There were fires and leaks and damage and death and injured and homeless everywhere, as well as occasional aftershocks.
The journalist in me said I needed to file reports, take photos, be on the job. But the husband and parent in me said I couldn’t begin to think about work, not with a wife and son close at hand (and, thankfully, unhurt). I prayed silently, thanking God that we were OK, all things considered, and I asked God to help see us through this devastation. My faith told me God would listen, though I had no idea what was in store.
From my parents’ phone, my wife got through to our insurance company with whom we had, thanks to her, a very good policy --- a small deductible and coverage for home repairs, replacement of damaged items and living expenses for as long as we needed.
Sometime that day, I thought of our little dog, who had died at the age of 16 the previous August. She was a wonderful, spirited little friend and watchdog, all 10 pounds of her, until cancer became too much for her to handle. With tears in my eyes, I told my wife I was grateful Dusty was spared this chaos, as I thought of all the other animals and people who were old and frail and scared, and no doubt having a difficult time with this mess of a day.
“Honey,” my wife said softly, “Dusty’s watching out for us. And so is God.”
God at work
Over the next several days, we saw God at work in many ways. Several friends from St. Didacus, who we had known since our kids were in pre-school together, came over to help us pack up dishes, clothes and who knows what (we also tossed out all kinds of “stuff” that we had no idea why we had kept). Our phone became operable, and friends and relatives called to make sure we were OK and ask how they could help.
On Wednesday, we spent the night at the first of seven different hotels we would occupy over the next three months while our home was repaired. A place to stay, to shower, to sleep --- we appreciated it more than we would ever have thought possible.
On Friday morning, movers arrived to put everything into storage. They were kind and efficient, knowing what we’d gone through. We hurried to pack the last of our items, tossing some things into shopping bags so that the movers could expedite the process.
Our son watched this activity in the only home he had ever known with alarming quiet. School was closed, his world was upside down, and unlike his parents, who were teenagers living in the Valley during the 1971 Sylmar Quake, he hadn’t seen such destruction up close.
But then, amidst all the hectic-ness, Dave Moore, then head of the archdiocesan communications office, and his executive secretary Lucille Miller arrived. Lucille had called earlier to make sure we were OK, and home, and told us they’d be coming. Having driven into the park past National Guard trucks (on hand to prevent looting), they saw the devastation and told me not to even think about coming to work, that my place was with my family.
And then they presented us with two monetary gifts --- one from the archdiocese and one from The Tidings’ staff --- to help, as they said, ease our distress “a little bit.” When we saw the stack of checks and cash, we burst into tears.
And it wasn’t the amount of money (though it was certainly a generous amount) that overwhelmed us. Rather, it was the sheer act of kindness and generosity, offered by people in the midst of their own pain and chaos, offered in the name of friendship and love, offered in the name of Jesus Christ.
If we hadn’t known by then, we knew now that somehow, someday, all would be well.
It wasn’t easy, and that came through the very next night when my wife cantored the Saturday Vigil Mass. As she sang Bob Dufford’s “Be Not Afraid,” she came to the line in the second verse, “If you walk amid the burning flames …” and, for a moment, was overcome with emotion.
But only for a moment. She recovered, continued and after Mass our pastor took us to the rectory and offered the parish’s help. “What can we do?” he asked. “What do you need?” Thank you, we replied, but we were doing OK, and we would be OK, although we wouldn’t mind a few prayers on our behalf.
Within a week, we were back at work, and our son back at school. Whatever inconveniences we faced were nothing compared to what so many more dealt with. We were whole and healthy, and we had each other.
We also had, through God’s grace, a better appreciation of how much he has gifted us with --- patience, resilience, empathy. And faith, made more real than ever by the gift of loving, caring people in our lives, living out their call to be Christ in the world by serving one another.
Remember, after all, how the second verse of “Be Not Afraid” ends: “Know that I am with you through it all.”
That’s the sound I like to remember most.