Jan 17 2013

Aftershock – the 1994 Northridge earthquake

Category: Fears & PhobiasPatricia @ 4:02 pm

         January 17, 1994

          4:31 am



Shock. Electric and explosive. Adrenaline pumps. Breath quickens, as survival mode begins. Senses are heightened to a surreal terror. The world is being ripped apart and the primal brain comes alive to cope with the panic.

Sound that cannot be. Thunderous crashing. Wailing. Groaning. A deep rumbling noise beyond anything imagined. So big. So powerful. A beast unleashed. The ground is breaking open. And I can hear the scream. And the scream is coming from me. From the center of the earth. From the center of my being.

I am so afraid.

Light shines through the window. Creating silhouettes of chaos. Trees swaying beyond moving walls. Surely the house will split in two. Fragile pile of wood and mortar held together with insignificant bits of metal. Little box which holds our stuff, our family, our love. The earth is shaking, quaking, trembling and jumping up and down in a tantrum of raw, unleashed power. I feel as if the bed is atop a seat in a carnival dunk tank; rigged and ready to drop into the bowels of the earth when the right hit comes. Holding tight to the sheets, I thrash about as the unstable waterbed beneath me sloshes and rolls. Awakened to unknown danger by the violent surge of energy moving beneath me, my body is aware of instability and turbulence. I tense.

Beside me, Michael flies from the bed. One second he is with me, snuggled in the warmth of our together. The next moment, he is passing my side of the bed, heading out of the room. How did he do that? How did he move like that? I no longer trust my senses. Time and space are playing tricks on me. It’s as if he must have floated above the ground on angel feet, propelled by the urgency of a father in search of his son.

“Why are you screaming?” he asks.  So nonchalant. So in control. Silence is my answer as a blanket of fear wraps itself around me. A stifling, smothering blanket. How do I process what my mind isn’t able to grasp? When did it start? How do I count how long it is? How long is a second?

And the earth continues to crash and groan. Will it stop? Will this one ever stop? Is this “The Big One”? Is this how it ends? Stop. Please Stop. Please. Now. Stop. Please.

And then it is quiet. And the quiet is deafening. It’s okay. I tell myself to breathe now. Little noises of beings and things adjusting themselves. A universal sigh. Alive.

Out of bed. Turn on the light. Shaky knees. That wobbly feeling when you step off an amusement park ride that has disturbed your senses. Run to them. Husband. Child. Hugs. We’re okay. Except for a bump on the knee.

Digital clock flashes 4:39 a.m. Bang! Like thunder before lightening strikes. Power out. Again. On no. It’s bad. Very bad.  As if the entire house is being lifted up off the foundation. Violent. Banging. Over and Over.

 “How big is it?” I ask myself. As if I could give a Richter scale reading or evaluate it in any way other than TOO BIG!!!!  Maybe the first one is a pre-shock to an even bigger one? No! Can’t handle that thought. And the violent shaking goes on.

My mind no longer understands before or after. It only understands now. And right now, the terror within is wide awake. And blind. No longer screaming on the outside, I may be speechless. Unable to process my thoughts or express myself, I am rendered mute.

Quiet again. Now is the time to check. Assess the damages. Things thrown about and scattered. Broken pieces heaved around. Disorder but not Disaster. Get a flashlight. No candles before we check for gas. Put on the clothes hanging on the chair discarded before sleep. Shoes. Damages viewed through the focused point of a flashlight beam. Only able to see bits and pieces isolated from the whole. Only able to take in a little at a time. Mindlessly pick things up. Make note of broken glass for future clean-up. No major cracks. No gas leaks. No fires.

Leave the house.  Step around bricks thrown from chimney tops into the street. Greeted by neighbors and more flashlight beams. The scent of a cinnamon candle left over from the holidays. Familiar faces now eerily painted with Halloween strokes of illumination.

Stars are magnificent when the lights have gone out and you are plunged into darkness… complete primal darkness. Points of light poking through the ink black fabric of the heavens. A countless number of bright and shiny diamonds stretched across a vast, velvet universe.

“Are you okay? Is everyone okay?” Michael bumped his knee. We’re all okay. Alive.

I need to pick things up, to straighten my surroundings. To put the world back in order. I like things tidy. I like to be comfortable and in control of my environment. I realize I am no longer in control. But it is dark. Wilderness dark in a suburban world. How quickly electricity changes things. Michael tells me, “Wait until you can see.” He is practical. Even though I am anxious, this makes sense.

So we three settle in together upon the living room couch.

It is cave dark, And Mother Earth continues to quiver and groan. Will she rest? Is she ready to settle down? Or is she only resting to build her strength?

Exhausted, we have no option but to sleep.

The sky awakens with the gray light of dawn, and my mind tries to understand where I am and why. Dream state collides with reality. The only thing we can do is begin again.

And so we three start the day that will change our lives Forever.

Dazed, we walk around in shock. Disturbed. Uneasy. Anxious. Ignorance is not bliss. I need to know what is happening. How big was it? What’s the damage? Listening to the battery powered radio as I go from room to room picking up the pieces of our world. A TV has moved from the table to the window sill behind it…just a little further and it would have gone through. Contents of medicine cabinets spilled into sinks. Toilet tank cover in broken pieces strewn about in the bathtub and on the floor. Every thing on every surface…disturbed.

News of major devastation and chaos and death. Communication from outside of “the area”. To tell us what we know. It was a Very Big Earthquake.

Electricity comes back. I turn the television on. Reports of unbelievable damage and incredible images. More shock. We try to get on with our lives. To make a plan. We’ll go to the boat.  Make sure Necessity is okay. (She’s not a luxury, she’s a Necessity.) We’ll get more batteries. We don’t know how long the power will be on.  Shower and dress and its 1:00 p.m. and another major aftershock hits.

And the earth trembles and the house crashes. I watch as a lamp tumbles over and window blinds sway and rattle, as the room jumps and jitters. I cringe in the doorway, seeking refuge, stability, some protection from this upheaval. When it stops shaking and I can’t. I gather myself and my shoes. A swipe of lipstick. I run downstairs to Michael and Adam and we huddle.

Adam is anxious. It’s not surprising.  Ready to spring into action. To duck under a table. To quickly move away from windows. To be aware and alert. His world is coming apart. His normally calm and peaceful mother is falling apart, and his father is in pain and starting to limp from a bump on the knee.

Drive to the boat. Usually a calming and relaxing journey through the mountains, today it is unnerving. Everything is unnerving. We take the freeway. We’re afraid to drive through the canyon when the earth is so alive. Road could be blocked. Landslides and rockslides. Edge could be unstable. Unknown danger.

At the harbor, safe on K dock, we check on friends. Cradled in their boats, they barely sensed the tremor. More aware from the news rather than from the experience. Everything is as it was here on the dock.

Laurelwas there. She tells me of the flu. Details of the sickness. So cold, but sweating. So much sweating. She was so weak, so cold, so hot, so sick. But now she was better. Very bad flu going around.

We gather our things, our selves and what is left of our wits. We head home on the freeway, like a frightened horse returning to a burning barn. Radio on and the broadcaster in LA is saying, “Here comes another aftershock.” Seconds later, as the vibration reaches us and ripples outward, we feel the car jig a little. Arriving on our street, we find the neighbors have congregated again. Summoned to look up at the chimneys and check on each other.

Open the door and see disorder all over again. A bad dream repeated. The world has come apart and things have tumbled, and crashed and broken. And once again I pick things up, as if somehow I can make it stop if I put things in order. I am so thankful we were not in the house during the aftershock. And I say a prayer.  “Thank you for keeping us away”. I don’t think I could handle any more Fear.

And so this day eventually ends. We are exhausted. We are weary. Michael has a small red circular mark directly on his left kneecap. He complains a little, but it’s just a bump on the knee.

It’s difficult to settle in to bed, to return to the scene where I awoke to the terror this morning. (Was that this morning?) All the comfort found in this room, this bed, this haven, next to this man for these many years, taken away in seconds. Replaced with trepidation and anxiety.

So, tonight, we three surround each other. And we sleep.


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