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Shared Memories | The Northridge Earthquake: Five Years

Letters of Life, Death and Love

Five years ago today, at 4:31 a.m., the Northridge earthquake jolted the region, leaving at least 57 dead, thousands injured and millions of lives changed forever. Nearly 600 readers have shared their memories of that morning, offering accounts of heroism and humor, love and loss. Today through Friday we will share some of these tales.

January 17, 1999

On the day of the quake, I was working North Hollywood Division, Los Angeles Police Department, assigned to handle radio calls.

I was close to a call, a possible shooting, in a nice area of Studio City. As we arrived, neighbors said that an elderly woman lived in the house.

As I entered, I heard someone moaning in another room and I smelled gunpowder. In a bedroom, we found the woman with a single gunshot to the abdomen. She had killed both of her small dogs and laid them on the bed wrapped in towels. They were each shot once with the woman's gun.

Her house was in shambles from the quake. There was a note telling whoever found her that the quake was the last act God could do to her life. She felt she had lost everything.

We requested an ambulance several times, but the call load was too heavy from other quake victims.

We wrapped the woman in a blanket and carried her to a police car. She was raced to the hospital. She lived approximately one week before dying from her own hand.

Doctors felt she was not trying to live. It was her last effort to remove herself from what she thought was a hopeless world.

I remember this one incident more than all the others that I saw. It seemed so senseless. I don't know if she was included in the list of victims killed by the quake.

Det. Gordon Hagge

North Hollywood Division


My father had stayed over the night of the earthquake. He loves coffee, and at first light he asked me to drive him around to find someone who

was selling coffee, since we had no power at our house. There was nothing open around our house because no one else had any power either, so we got on the southbound 14 Freeway looking for coffee.

The freeway was backed up with traffic, so we drove across the center divide area and went back the other way.

We drove all around looking for his coffee. The entire time we drove around he kept saying, "Someone has to have coffee."

We never did find any coffee.

John Rubacher

Santa Clarita


I tried to get into the den and couldn't. The fallen bookcase blocked the door, and it wasn't until the next day, with the help of someone else, that I was able to get in there.

What I found has continued to affect my life to this day. All my photo albums (up to date from the time I was born--and being a senior citizen, that's a considerable amount of albums) were destroyed. Front and back broken, pages crumbled and torn. Nothing left intact.

I have since bought 36 new albums, and am now on a mission to fill them. I do a little bit at a time, and though it's a nuisance job, I'm having fun reliving my life in photos--something I might not have done had it not been for the earthquake.

Henriette Goldsmith



Our company, Vagabond House, manufactures small gift-ware items. We employ about 25 people, mostly immigrants who work hard and live paycheck to paycheck.

They showed up at the factory in Chatsworth that morning because they had no place else to go. Their apartments had been wrecked, and they were afraid to go back. It was a daunting situation: no place to live, no work and no pay.

The interim solution was to turn our damaged house into the company motel. Thirty-five people slept on the floor and ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches by candlelight. The children screamed during the numerous aftershocks, but we made it through that long and dismal night. The next morning, we held a meeting and decided we were not going to be defeated. Everybody pitched in. We all went back to the factory and used chain saws to cut up the collapsed roof and salvage what equipment we could. We rented containers, tarpaulins and tents and moved Vagabond House into the parking lot in front of our shattered building.

Once the power and phones were restored, we were up and running. Two days after the quake, we called our UPS man and asked him where he was. We had merchandise ready to ship.

He was astounded. Three months were spent in that parking lot before we could move back into the building. During that entire period our workers handled every task with good cheer and plenty of elbow grease.

Five years later, we're still in business and many of the people who took us through that difficult time are still with us. I am tremendously proud of them. They are living proof that the human spirit can triumph over adversity.

Susan Lord



My husband, a high school physics teacher, and I had been married less than two months. We had barely settled into our new townhouse when the earthquake struck.

That is when I found out how strange physics teachers can be. Instead of shouting "I love you" or "I'm scared," he held onto me while giving me a complete impromptu lecture on earthquakes, including their P waves and S waves.

Still nervous from the experience, we sleep with a light on. And whenever we have an aftershock, we place bets on the magnitude.

Despite my husband's high level of education in planetary science and physics, I usually win. I hope you print this because he still owes me several back rubs.

Adele Silverman

Woodland Hills


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