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Hearts of L.A. / How the Quake Rocked Our Spirits and Changed Our Lives : TAKING CHARGE : 'Our kids came out and there were kisses.'

January 30, 1994|Joe Castruita | Castruita, 37, has been with Los Angeles Department of Water and Power for 11 years. For the last year he has been operations supervisor at the West Valley Water District in Northridge, the same post his father was in when he retired from DWP five years ago after 37 years with department. His father went through the '71 Sylmar quake. and

I was in Las Vegas. My wife, Pamela, and I had just gotten in from a night of shows and gambling. At about 4:30, we just felt our room shake and roll. I knew it was an earthquake. What troubled me was I knew Las Vegas was not a real key place for an earthquake to occur.

Everything calmed down, then the loudspeaker in the hotel room came on. They said, "Everything is fine. The building is OK. No fire present."

My wife said, "I'm going to call home. Do you think they felt it?" She tried to call my children, Joey Jr. and Nicholas, who are 11 and 8, who were staying with my parents in Reseda. She couldn't get through on the phone. I turned on the TV and changed it to a news station. In about 20 minutes, they were saying the earthquake was around the San Fernando Valley.

We were extremely concerned. We knew if we felt it in Vegas and it occurred in San Fernando Valley, it could be bad. My wife was falling apart. We were terrified.

We decided to pack our belongings, and we were out the door. We went to the lobby and there were a number of people in the lobby and they were in tears and they just said (to the cashier) "Please, mail my billing to my home." They didn't want to stay in line.

We waited for our friends. Then we fueled up our cars and left. We listened to the radio to see which freeway was accessible. We found out that the 14 freeway we needed to get home on was devastated. My wife checked a map and we ended up coming through San Bernardino on the 10 freeway.

On the long ride back, we monitored the radio. As we kept driving, they were assessing more and more damage. It sounded worse and worse. The apartment that collapsed. The water system.

It seemed like a 20-hour ride. My wife was in tears all the way home.

I drove to my parents' house first. At that point, we hadn't viewed a lot of damage. There were lots of block walls knocked over, but when I got to my parents' house, it was in utter shambles. Everything on a shelf was on the ground. Our kids came out and there were kisses and hugs. It was utter relief. I just hugged and crunched them in my arms. My wife was just so relieved.

Then I wanted to see my home in Winnetka. As I was trying to get home, there were gas company units all around trying to repair the mains. I finally ended up going a mile out of my way. I'm starting to see streets buckled. I'm seeing water coming up through cracks in the street. And as I get closer to my house, I see streets rippled out in places. I'm imagining what my home looks like.

I got home and my driveway was broken up, so I parked in the street. The front door was stuck shut, so I ran around to the back door and couldn't open the back door. I went back to the front and pushed until I got it open. The kitchen floor was full of dishes and food.

I had bolted the china hutch and everything had come out of it. Stuff passed on from our family. Mirrors had fallen off the walls. The stereo fell over. I have a small Pomeranian, and she was tucked up behind a storage shed in the back. I had to go over to coax her out. My block wall fell over against the house. The gates to come into the back yard wouldn't open. I still haven't fixed any of that. I haven't been able to get home a day to do it.

I went to the West Valley Water District. They had command post set up with our radio system. There was no power. There are large valves that take three to six people to shut the feeders down manually. These valves range from 68-inch to 24-inch valves. Some of those valves require 800 turns or more to shut off. . . . Some valves, we were able to put valve operators on them, and they were literally standing on top of the pipe and turning.

We operate on a grid system. There are valves that must be shut down prior to shutting off another valve. You can't turn them off like a faucet. You have to shut them down in a sequence. It takes a lot of knowledge.

We repaired more than 350 water leaks (since the earthquake). These are blowouts in which sections of pipe have fractured and water has caused street damage. We lost a lot of water pressure in a lot of our neighborhoods. We have a number of water tanks that more or less follow the ridge of the Valley. They carry a half-million gallons to 5 million gallons of water. Those tanks literally drained themselves with all the leaks in the streets. Some of the piping going to these tanks was sheared off and spilled onto the hillsides and caused hillside damage.

There was a major break on Balboa. We have two large feeders running from the Van Norman Reservoir down Balboa and west down Rinaldi. The street caved in. There was a ruptured 16 or 20-inch gas main on Balboa that was running parallel to our water main.

Our crews couldn't get in because the gas company had a fire wall going there. The air was so hot and intense, you couldn't get in until the gas company could isolate the gas main and get the gas stopped.

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