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Another not-such-a-Big One

Swimming, filming and pedicures are disrupted by the downside of the California dream. But not for very long.

July 30, 2008|Duke Helfand, Hector Becerra and Scott Gold | Times Staff Writers

In Chino Hills, preschool director Susan Harris was tending to a student who had stepped on a bee when the ground began to tremble. As they huddled together under a counter, the little girl could only stare into her eyes.

"It's OK," Harris told her, though that was not clear at all. "It's OK."

Across town, Kimberly Kessel was putting away a vacuum cleaner when her house started shaking. She bolted into the backyard without her shoes, her blue-eyed, 18-month-old son cradled in her arms.

"Oh, God," she said to herself. "Here it is."

A few miles to the east, Vanessa Rojas was at work at Blondie's Clip Shop, a salon. She and 10 customers sprinted into the parking lot.

"I thought it was the big one," Rojas said.

But it was not. Again.

It will happen eventually. And days like Tuesday, when a 5.4-magnitude earthquake struck Southern California, serve as a reminder that when it does happen, it is bound to be awful.

But across the region any immediate sense of terror was supplanted quickly by deep relief and minor repairs.

They picked up the ceiling tiles that fell at a middle school in Chatsworth; they swept up the glass from shattered windows at Pomona's City Hall; they mopped up the minor flood from a water heater that blew in Terminal 7 at Los Angeles International Airport.

"There's a whole lot of nothing," Chino Valley Independent Fire District Capt. Jeremy Ault said. "We expected the worst, but we received the best."

There is a routine that kicks in, from the first moments of a quake.

First, of course, comes a sharp jolt of fear.

"Then," Chino Hills State Park Supt. John Rowe said, "You remember: I live in California."

At UC Irvine, a student attending a summer program in critical thinking and literature began to cry as her classroom building pitched and rocked for about 30 seconds.

At Ayala High School in Chino Hills, Irene Gomez was watching her 6-year-old daughter take a swimming lesson when the bleachers in the nearby football stadium began to rumble thunderously.

"I jumped up and the water in the pool started sloshing against the sides," Gomez said. "I was standing there thinking: 'My daughter! My daughter!' "

When the quaking subsides, in creeps the sense that we've cheated the odds.

At the M&I government surplus and general merchandise store in Pomona, 20 people froze for 30 seconds after the quake. Once it became clear that the shelves holding propane lanterns and first-aid kits were staying put too, everyone walked outside -- "laughing," said salesman Jose Solis, 23.

Then, life goes on, because it must.

The AES power plant in Redondo Beach is often used for filming television shows, movies and commercials. Sometimes the effects performed by production crews rattle the windows in the surrounding neighborhoods. So when the quake hit, Redondo Beach Fire Chief Dan Madrigal turned to City Manager Bill Workman and told him not to worry, since he knew there was filming Tuesday.

"My guess is, it's an earthquake," Workman replied.

Like many civic buildings across the region, Redondo's City Hall and library were evacuated. Inspectors checked for structural damage and found none. Twenty minutes later, employees went back to work. Readers filed back into the library. And the production crew at the power plant started its next take.

Then comes the disconnect -- those few days when the rest of world is convinced that California is on the verge of falling into the sea.

Media calls from as far away as Toronto flooded the offices of fire officials in the Chino area, while at Fire Station 6 in Chino Hills, Battalion Chief Ruben Guerrero said the situation was well under control. He relaxed during lunch with a tuna fish sandwich and a newspaper, explaining that a few gas leaks were caused by the quake.

"It was a pretty good shaker," he conceded. "But the guys are working away like it's a normal day."

Julie Hummel, 24, moved to California a year ago from Portland, Ind., a town of roughly 7,000 on the Indiana-Ohio border. She was at work Tuesday at the Chino Hills Branch Library, where she is the young adult specialist and volunteer coordinator.

By the time she realized what was happening, she said, she hadn't even had time to run for shelter. "It was already over," she said.

Not a single volume of the library's more than 10,000 books tumbled from the shelves. Hummel went back to work, planning a murder mystery pizza party for teenagers scheduled for Tuesday night. But the phone started ringing immediately. Her mother called from Indiana, as did her brother and a friend, also from back home. So did the "The Today Show."

"All of my family called to make sure I'm alive, which is kind of funny," she said. "I told them I'm fine. . . . They think it's really cool I lived through it."

Most of Chino Hills had settled back into its languid pace by early afternoon.

Horses that had bolted during the quake were once again grazing lazily in the rolling hills.

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