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Hearts of L.A. / How the Quake Rocked Our Spirits and Changed Our Lives : TAKING CHARGE : 'Then I realized, "That's the first floor! My God!" '

January 30, 1994|Mike Henry | Henry, 36, has been an L.A. city firefighter for 14 years. He drives the hook-and-ladder truck--"Aerial Ladder 70"--for Fire Station 70 in Northridge and helped rescue people from Northridge Meadows apartment complex. and

There were eight of us sleeping in the dormitory on the second floor of the station house and, like everybody else, we got jolted out of bed. Actually, I was thrown out of bed. It was just like a bomb hit us.

I crawled over to a doorway 10 feet away. All the ceiling tiles and T-bars that hold them up had fallen down. I cut myself on this T-bar. Then I finally got under the doorway until the shaking stopped.

Some of the firefighters were getting under beds. Some were trying to ride it out in bed. Some were screaming and yelling. As soon as it stopped, people were yelling, "Is everybody all right?!" It was pitch-black. No lights. I was scrambling around looking for my turnout boots and pants. You couldn't see anything. I finally located my boots and stuck my foot in one of them. Then I had to take it out because the boot was full of pieces of ceiling tile. It's kind of comical. I had to dump my boots out before putting them on.

We ran out of the dorm. I was the first one on the pole. Some guys took the stairs because they didn't trust the pole. It was still pitch-black. There were a couple guys running around with little flashlights. I went to get the doors open because we needed to get the rigs out of quarters before we could do anybody any good. We went to the front doors. They are electric doors. Without power, you have to pull a lever and engage the manual override. You pull on a chain. We started to raise it, but it was jammed and we broke the chain. We couldn't get out the front doors, so we had to go around to the rear doors.

I drive a long hook-and-ladder. We got it and the rest of the equipment out of quarters safely and split into two companies. The engine company took one half of the district and we took the other.

As soon as we rounded the corner, we saw people standing there from apartments from across the street asking for help. We told them to help their neighbors and do what they could for themselves and said, "We'll be back for help as soon as we can." We told them, "Do not go into the fire station. It's not safe." It would have been a natural refuge.

We drove south on Reseda Boulevard, and about every building we came upon, we encountered another group of people in the street asking for help.

In an earthquake, we have to do this assessment. It's kind of a triage. We have to make an assessment of the major dangers in our district before we can commit ourselves to any particular emergency. We drive a specific route. Ours was south on Reseda to Nordhoff. As we went south on Reseda, we wrote down just about every apartment address. The street is lined with apartments, and people were complaining they had stuck doors and some damage and needed help.

We drove south and actually went by the Northridge Meadows apartments. It was pitch-black out. You couldn't see the outlines of buildings. All you could see were people in the street, and we shone a spotlight on them. The building looked fairly normal, so we told the people to go help their neighbors get out, to try and find out who they were and that we'd be back.

We didn't realize the Meadows had collapsed.

As we got to Tampa, we noticed a single-family house on fire. We decided to go and try to make a quick knockdown of that fire so we wouldn't lose the whole block. We have lot of shake wood roofs in that neighborhood, and they go off like matchboxes.

But we didn't have any water in hydrants, so we had to use our 500-gallon tank. But that lasted only about three or four minutes. We had to write off the house that was on fire. The owner was there. We told him, "We can't save your house." He understood. Reasonable.

As we were driving and taking assessment, my thoughts were about where this thing was centered, and I said to myself, "My God, if it's centered toward Ventura, my house is worse than these houses here." I live in Simi Valley. My wife and kid could have been buried in rubble too. All I could do was pray to God that they were fine, that He would keep them alive. As it turned out, they were just fine.

The engine company that went to the north end of the district had a set of townhomes completely engulfed in fire and spreading to adjacent ones. They needed help bad, but we had to tell them we had to check out these other apartments.

At this point, we still didn't realize the magnitude of Northridge Meadows. We were just driving south on Reseda and, knowing we had reports of people trapped, we went back down there. This seemed to be the most important place for us to be. Sure enough, we had a lot of people saying there were people trapped under the building. I couldn't imagine that. I was thinking, "How did they get under the building?"

As we pulled up, there were guys with hammers tearing at the building, trying to get people out from under there. I'm going, "Is there an underground parking garage here? What are these people doing under there?"

Then I realized, "That's the first floor! My God!"

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