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Hearts of L.A. / How the Quake Rocked Our Spirits and Changed Our Lives : COPING WITH CHAOS : 'I'm a survivor; I've always been a survivor.'

January 30, 1994|Jean Priestman | Priestman, 56, is the administrator for the Sparr Convalescent Hospital near downtown Los Angeles. She is a resident of the Tahitian Mobile Home Park in Sylmar, where 64 mobile homes were destroyed by fire after the Northridge earthquake. Priestman has moved in with a friend in Tujunga. Her trailer is uninhabitable. and

I recall a very large explosive noise. Boom! I got out of bed in my mobile home and didn't know where the heck to stand because mobile homes are not designed very well, but I just went into any archway at that point. The movement was up and down, up and down and then crossways.

I didn't know what in the world was happening. I did have a fear, but mostly how to take care of myself. The earthquake let up for one split second like it was all over and then suddenly it really rocked and rolled. I tried to get out the front door, but it was jammed.

I couldn't get out and I was scared. So I went to the back door and it was OK, and I opened up the door and the gas main had been severed. All the gas fumes were coming into my home. The odor was very, very strong.

Then it seemed like it was quiet for a minute and I went back into my mobile home and I was sort of numb for a moment. And then I went outside and people at that point were starting to stir around. It was very, very dark and black. There weren't any lights. People were getting terrified. There was a lot of screaming in this park. People were screaming at the top of their lungs. I looked over to the left of me and there was a fire that had started. It was a large fire and as it went up, I knew it was in our park, and then at that point everybody was getting more and more terrified.

There was nothing we could do. We couldn't get any water. Then all of a sudden I looked over to the right and there was another fire starting over at the other end. I was trying to get things out of my house. It was important that I got my papers . . . and the picture that I had of Sparr, my dog, that was hanging on the wall. I grabbed those and threw them in the car.

Fires were raging. People were running helter-skelter. There was an awful lot of panic. People were driving every which way. It reminded me of World War II and all the news reels that you would see of Europe: the fires, the people running in their pajamas in the streets, screaming, panic. Just like a war zone.

We were told to get out of the park. The fires were coming closer and closer and closer. I felt like I was in a movie set. I was walking around alone a lot of the time because I chose to do that. I didn't want to be around too many people. There were two ladies who would not get out of their mobile homes; they had dogs and they were terrified. They just felt like they could not go out of that home even though it was moving.

There was a man who was running down the street in his pajamas and it was like he was confused, like the patients in the hospital when they get very confused and disoriented. I told him that he was going to be OK, and the most important thing was to save his own life. I told him to come along with me and I'd get him to a safe area.

There was one lady who said she wasn't going, and I just said, "Look, you've got to get out of here because this place could blow up right on you." So I was talking to her like that, and I took her by the arm and more or less just forced her out of that place and onto the street.

A tree was catching fire right behind me. I was scared the fire would come over into our trailer section. I got a pail because there was a lot of water running down from the street here in front of me from a broken main. I grabbed another person and said, "Look, you just keep filling up this pail," and I would run over and throw the water onto the tree to stop it from catching fire.

It was so dark, and it was terrible because the wind was blowing and the wind was carrying the sparks from the fire in the trees into our hair and on our bodies. That was very frightening. It was more than frightening, it was terrifying. There was nothing you could do but watch it and try to help people, that's all.

A lot of guys were running around trying to turn off the gas and the electrical. I had a wrench by my gas meter and I tried to use it, but I couldn't see anything. They finally turned off the main gas line to the park.

I cried a lot when I saw my friends' homes going up in the fire. I cried because I was just happy that everybody got out of here alive. It was wonderful to see people helping each other. A lot of those people aren't going to move back here anymore. They're going to move out of California. One I know moved to Canada. Some want to stay.

How I am coping now is basically by using the skills I've learned through the 12-step recovery program. I know I have no control over what happens. What's going to happen is going to happen, and I have no control of that, and indeed, that's what happened here.

I'm turning my fate over to a higher power. I'm a survivor; I've always been a survivor. I'm going to keep going on with my life. I won't stop. And I'll continue enjoying just what the Earth has to offer me: a simplicity of life.

No question about it, this little ol' earthquake showed me what life is really all about. When I walk on the face of this Earth, it is still the most comfortable of all places to be, even if it rocks and rolls.

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