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Fractured Dreams

Take a Walk on the Wild Side (One Man's Journey Along the Hollywood Fault, Above Ground and Under)

January 25, 1998|PHILIP L. FRADKIN | Philip L. Fradkin, a former Times staff writer, is the author of "The Seven States of California" and the forthcoming "Magnitude 8: Earthquakes and Life Along the San Andreas Fault" (Henry Holt)

We were at a depth where the fossil remains of ancient redwood and pine forests predated the 46,000-year limit of a carbon-14 dating technique. It was here that the bones and teeth of sloths, camels, bison and elephants--the remnants of a past ice age--had been recovered by tunnelers. This was a prehistoric graveyard of Los Angeles.

The subway tunnel was warm; there was almost a jungle-type humidity, more than 100 feet below Hollywood. This surprised me. Other tunnels and caves that I have visited were cool, which was why I wore a sweater under the coveralls.

I began to sweat. I asked Stuart Warren, my guide, about the temperature. He said something about it being Southern California, ha-ha.

A slight mist dimmed outlines in the tunnel and gave the soft-focus scene a feeling of unreality. The evenly spaced lights on the walls cast a dull glow. The noise of the huge fan that sucked out the foul air was deafening. Altogether, a complex assault on the senses.

With the recent spate of natural disaster films in mind, I remarked that the tunnel would make a perfect setting for a movie. I could imagine the presence of monsters, alien beings and chase scenes. It oozed catastrophe.

Warren looked at me but did not respond. I imagined him thinking: "That's all I need."

*

I have always wanted to walk through an earthquake fault.

We are surrounded by seismic activity. I live beside the San Andreas fault in Northern California. Every day I gaze at the spot on the fault line that shifted 20 feet in 1906--the largest displacement in the great San Francisco quake. I have experienced two major and an uncounted number of minor temblors. Tectonic action has done more to shape the California landscape than any other factor, and our earthquakes provide the world with a metaphor for incipient disaster.

Such a stroll through a fault seemed like a natural should the opportunity arise. So when someone on an Internet newsgroup devoted to earthquakes mentioned that the people who were digging a subway under the Santa Monica Mountains had encountered the Hollywood fault, I immediately got on the phone with a representative of the Metropolitan Transit Authority and arranged a walk-through. I explained that I was writing a book about earthquakes. A tour was arranged.

That was how I came to be standing in the parking lot of the Fifth Church of Christ Scientist at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea Avenue one recent morning. A banner with a Mary Baker Eddy aphorism was prominently displayed in front of the church. It read: "Divine Love always has met and always will meet every human need." As I prepared for my descent into the belly of the seismic beast, I fervently hoped that was the case.

Waiting for me in the parking lot rented from the church was Warren, geotechnical manager on the project that consisted of pushing twin subway tubes through the Hollywood Hills, and Mary Ann Maskery from MTA's media relations office. Warren was a veteran of many such undertakings, beginning with coal mines and

*

Proceeding through the tunnel under the English Channel. Maskery was my constant shadow at interviews. This would be her first trip underground.

I had been outfitted at the Universal City construction site office with rubber boots, white coveralls, an orange vest, a hard hat, safety goggles, flashlight, a breathing device in case we came across dangerous levels of carbon monoxide, and two brass disks. One would be left at the top of the elevator and would indicate that I was missing, should there be an accident in the tunnel. The other would be inserted in my body bag when I was brought to the surface. I signed the obligatory release form.

Looking like a comedic astronaut, I clumped across the parking lot with the others and climbed the wooden steps to the Hollywood construction site office. We entered the antechamber to a world far removed from the tourists just beginning their daily promenade along the nearby Walk of Fame.

During interviews with engineers and geologists, the safety of all phases of the subway project, including its eventual operation, had been stressed. Yet I couldn't stop thinking that these were the same folks who were responsible for sinkholes, large cost overruns and dreadful management. Some of the problems were endemic to digging a 2.4-mile-long tunnel under thousands of people and their artifacts. Better to dig a hole under the English Channel, or the desert.

The region's biggest and most maligned public works project did seem ill-fated, however. "Litany of woes" and "trouble-plagued" were some of the standard phrases applied to the extension of the Red Line from Hollywood to Universal City. Not encouraging, I thought.

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