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Hearts of L.A. / How the Quake Rocked Our Spirits and Changed Our Lives : COPING WITH CHAOS : 'I'm telling you . . . I love California. I'm leaving.'

January 30, 1994|Nathan Gardels | Gardels, 41, is editor of New Perspectives Quarterly. He and his family--wife, Lilli, and sons Alex, 3, and Carlos, 6--lived in Woodland Hills, but they left town right after the quake. He was interviewed by phone from Milan, Italy

At 4:31 in the morning, all lights were off, it's pitch-black, I immediately jump up, ask my wife to get the younger son to hide in a doorway. The TV set is the first thing that falls on my leg as I'm running out of the bedroom in pitch blackness. We have a linen closet that opens horizontally. I run into closets. I can't see. I have bruises all over my body.

The roar is deafening, like a jet taking off, like a train going by. We huddle until the first shock is over. It seems interminable. The doors have flown open. There's one flashlight downstairs; it's very weak.

I start fishing then, saying OK, there are batteries in some of the kids' toys. I discover everything has fallen out of their closets. The toys with the batteries I need are buried under 10,000 other toys that have fallen from the shelves. I make my way back to the table. Meanwhile, aftershock after aftershock is happening every time I stand up. I'm searching in the dark for my glasses, then I'm trying to go downstairs to get more flashlights.

Then I discover the ruins. The walls are cracked in 15 places, there are 2,000 books strewn cross the floor. All the crystal is broken. There's wall-to-wall glass and debris on the floor. It is now 5:30. I can't see a thing.

I walk barefoot over glass and debris in a state of semi-shock. I go outside to turn off the gas. The wrench was hanging there already. I have a pool, 40 feet from my house. There has, in effect, been a tidal wave. It washed all the planted flowers, lifted them up by the roots and washed them onto the patio, 40 feet away, knocked over huge pots with palm trees, broken. There are more aftershocks.

Finally, it's 6:30 and getting light enough to see. The fireplace is cracked to smithereens. I have 13 rooms in the house, each one with major cracks. Plaster is falling off the walls. Italian vases, everything shattered. All the spices are out of the cabinets. Honey mixed with coarse ground pepper and vinegar. It's a total mess.

Your first instinct is to start cleaning up. You don't know where to begin. Every book is out of the shelf. Every pot is broken. Every dish has fallen out. And every time you start to move, there's an aftershock. We cleaned up a bit, then sat outside and just stared into space.

We kept the kids away from the chimney. We talked to neighbors to assess the damage. I went to see the blind lady down the street--she's alone--to see if she needed help. Who knows where the day went? It's 3, 4, getting dark; geez, we'd better start getting ready for darkness.

We pitch a tent in the back yard, put out candles, a bottle of water. We get the kids dressed in two, three layers of clothes and prepare to sleep outside. That we did until 8 o'clock. We were singing campfire songs. It was incredible to see the stars. Usually, there are so many lights in L.A. you can't see the stars. Too much light refracting in the sky. It was pitch-black. We saw shooting stars.

It was cold. Then we got a call from my brother-in-law. He said the 101's finally open, you should come up here. Their house was not damaged at all. We didn't take two seconds. We drove with great trepidation along the 101, imagining at every turn that the freeway would break apart and we'd fall through a crevice.

We stayed the rest of the week, then I took the family to Washington, D.C., and I had to go to Europe (on business). I was going to stay, but the schools were closed. We can't live in the house; the chimney is dangerous. A beam across the living room could be structurally unsound. We can't get ahold of a building inspector to check it.

We were terrified of going back in the house. I read the L.A. Times; I read the scientists' analysis, the pattern of the earthquake moving northwest to the San Andreas Fault. I didn't want my family in California when I was out of town. I would have no peace of mind. I couldn't do my work.

I frankly am so freaked out, but I'm not, generally speaking, a neurotic person. The pattern was so clear: The Big One could come tomorrow, in two days, two weeks, two years. If this one wasn't the Big One, I can be sure the house would not be standing in the Big One. So let's get out of there, look for another place to live, maybe the suburbs outside of Washington.

People who didn't go through this damage, like friends of mine in Redondo Beach or Orange County, it's like just another earthquake to them. For those who experience it, it is like you don't want to wait for the Big One.

It breaks my heart to leave. I worked in Gov. Jerry Brown's office; I work with institutes to think about the Pacific Basin. I'm a promoter of California. But it's not worth it.

(On Wednesday) I'm out there cleaning the house, the sun is glinting on the pool, the garden is blooming, the grass is green. It's beautiful. It's paradise. It's lovely. Nice Mediterranean style. It's perfect.

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