They were everyday people doing normal, everyday things. Like Cesar Enriquez, a 19-year-old store manager in Brea, who was brushing his teeth when the earthquake "started with a deep rumble, and the next 30 seconds seemed like an hour."
For 15 terrifying seconds, the Southland rumbled and shook as Thursday's earthquake rippled through. It caught residents, like Enriquez, doing the mundane things that start any morning: bathing, getting ready for work, dropping the kids off at school, exercising, fighting freeway traffic.
But nothing could prepare them for the seconds when houses swayed and walls cracked, dishes crashed from cabinets, lights flickered and went out and ceiling tiles crumbled and fell.
"I was standing there at the mirror and things started coming down on me," said Enriquez, manager of Bill Gamble's clothing store at the Brea Mall. He was at home in Whittier when the earthquake hit at 7:42 a.m.
"Everything from the medicine cabinet came tumbling out . . . even the blow dryer hit me on the head," he said. "All the drawers came flying open, and things were flying in the air. It was like a poltergeist, or something from a horror film."
In Santa Ana, court clerk Micki Love was on the ninth floor of the 11-story Orange County Courthouse when the first tremor struck.
"I didn't know what it was at first," said Love, a Riverside resident. "I looked up and saw the seal of California swaying wildly (behind the judge's bench). The whole place was creaking. You felt like you were on rollers, sliding back and forth."
The swaying did not stop abruptly but continued to subside gradually for about five minutes after the shock ended, Love said.
Superior Court Judge John L. Flynn said he went home to La Habra over the lunch hour to find cabinets open and their contents spilled and shattered, broken potted plants and fallen pictures. A TV had flown from the top of a bookcase against a wall to the middle of the room.
Nearly everyone had a story to tell. Students at Golden West College in Huntington Beach were abuzz, each telling their own account of the quake. Walking through the campus cafeteria, bits of conversation about a fish tank splashing or shutters banging closed could be heard at most tables.
One group of hearing-impaired students were obviously trading earthquake stories; their arms rocked and rolled to mimic the earth's movement. Some put their hands beside their faces in a sleeping gesture to show that they had been asleep when the quake hit.
"I thought someone was trying to wake me," Christine Williams, 18, of Westminster said in a note.
Kori Hunsinger, 18, of Fountain Valley said her mother had been unsuccessfully trying to wake her up for school just minutes before the earthquake. When it hit, her mother remarked: "If it takes an earthquake to get you out of bed, they should happen more often."
Randy Campbell, 30, was on the Riverside Freeway, clipping along at a steady 45 m.p.h., when "my truck started swaying back and forth. I thought a wheel was about to come off. I couldn't control it very well. There were huge trucks next to me, and I thought I was going to crash into one. It wasn't until later that I learned what had happened."
For many others, though, there was little doubt about what had caused the initial low rumbling, followed by the harsh, grating sound of creaking walls and breaking glass.
"I knew immediately what it was," said Jessica Ryan, 35, who owns a flower and plant store in Brea. "I was in the shower, my hair all lathered up, when I was thrown into the shower door and then to the other side. That's not an exaggeration. I thought I was going to crash through the glass door."
Ryan waited out the first tremor inside the shower, then scurried out to find her son, Danny, 8, cowering under a table.
"I yelled for Danny and found him there under the table. And then, just as soon as I could dry off, an aftershock hit. I thought, hell, here I am all lathered up, and I just can't run out of the house with my child like this."
The quake and aftershocks hit the hardest in north Orange County, in the La Habra and Brea areas.
Karyn Sloan, assistant manager of a hair salon in Brea, said she was returning to bed after tending to her 2-year-old son "when there was this sharp jolt. It sounded like a lot of rumbling, like there was a truck going by. I heard the dishes breaking in the kitchen, and my first thought was to run in there and save them. But I got my son and we ran outside--there I was in just a T-shirt and socks--where all the neighbors were."
"It was interesting, but I wouldn't want to do it again."
With the hardest-hit areas farther north in Los Angeles, Orange County was spared serious destruction, although many businesses and homes reported damage from broken windows, objects falling off shelves and some cracked walls.
Eric Alley, a salesman at Thom McAn shoes at the Brea Mall, was in bed in Whittier when the walls started shaking.