*In honor of Halloween I wanted to tell the most terrifying experience of my life.*
I was nine years old and in the fourth grade. My best friend at that time was Lisa. She lived right down the street and we played together often; mostly Barbies, some house and some school.
It was mid January. I remember singing “I believe in Christ” in church that Sunday. I was excited because the next day we had no school. It was Martin Luther King Jr. day! It was decided that I was going to spend the night at Lisa’s house that night. My little sister, Kelli, tagged along.
We played together as we usually did. We undressed and dressed the Barbies, made them act in ridiculous scenarios, paraded them around, living vicariously through them. Didn’t all little girls wish they were older, with 12 inch waists and double D racks? I sure did. I also wished I had a plastic man with plastic hair and ambiguous body parts. Those were the days.
It started getting late and we contemplated sleeping all together on Lisa’s double bed. We decided against it and settled for sleeping in the loft next to her parents’ room. A loft with a built-in floor to ceiling bookshelf. A bookshelf where every space was utilized; encyclopedia sets, dictionaries, kids’ books, fiction, non-fiction, church related materials adorned the space. I vividly remember gazing at the sheer volume of books thinking, “Wow I hope there is not an earthquake tonight.” Growing up in California, one has those thoughts frequently.
We fell asleep quickly. I awoke sometime in the middle of the night with a bloody nose. Nothing too strange but there was an odd sense in the atmosphere. I couldn’t put my finger on it (maybe because my fingers were preoccupied with tissue) but something was…off. Oh well, I was only nine. I wasn’t about the ponder the complexities of the universe. So I went back to bed.
The next moment I’m about to share is so crystal clear in my memory. It was a very surreal experience, one that will always be present in my imagination.
I opened my eyes and it was dark. It was not morning yet but I was so violently woken. I realized things were shaking. Everything was moving. I reached out my hand and grabbed onto the railing right above my head. An earthquake. I was terrified. Scared out of my mind. The shaking continued for what felt like hours. In reality it was only for less than a minute. Something was so different about this quake. I had been in a couple before but this one was so fierce, so violent, so full of rage.
My instincts were to get up and get out. I tried. For some reason I couldn’t move. I felt as if I weighed 400 pounds. Then I heard Lisa’s mom gasp, “Dennis, the children are covered in books!”
Books?! What the heck was she talking about? Oh wait…books..BOOKS! The bookshelf! All that material was on top of us. We were buried in literature. I shoved and hurled books aside and pulled out my body. We ran out of the house, unknowingly stepping over broken glass, decorations, dishes and picture frames.
We made it outside into the chilly winter air. Up and down the street every neighbor had the same idea: GET OUT OF THE HOUSE.
There we sat, shivering from the cold and fear. It was around 3:45 in the morning. More than anything at the moment I wanted my mother.
Lisa’s Dad had to run back inside to retrieve jackets and coats. I was so enveloped in hysteria that I thought he would never make it back out alive. Well he did. I still wanted my mom.
Finally we got into the car and my sister and I were driven up the street to our house. My family was in their car as well, huddling together for comfort and for warmth.
With sunrise came the understanding that this was a massive earthquake. Neighbors and families tenderly walked through their homes and around destroyed priceless heirlooms, treasured gifts, loved art, precious china, recently jarred foods and countless other material items. Some lost their entire homes, some lost loved ones.
For the next few nights our neighborhood camped out in tents. We had no running water, no electricity and grocery stores were out of commission.
And then there were the aftershocks. The aftershocks wore my on my nerves like nails on a chalkboard. An endless chalkboard. We watched as dust from the mountains floated up and then resettled. As soon as one began you had to find something to hang to or hunker down to the ground, or find a doorway. I hated those aftershocks.
After a few days I found myself back at Lisa’s house. My eyes widened as I looked around and I kept thinking, “We WALKED over all this stuff?!” I had no recollection of any bleeding toes or heels. It was so strange.
Then we went up to the loft and I was incredulous. There was no.way. that all of those books were on top of us. No WAY. And as I thought back to that terrifying moment I realized that I never felt one book touch my body. Not one. Only the shaking had aroused me from my sleep. Surely I would have felt dozens of books crashing on top of me. But no, I didn’t. Lisa and my sister came to the same realization.
Then we made our way into Lisa’s room. The room we considered sleeping in that night. A room that now had two mirror closet doors practically draped across her bed; glass shattered all around.
At that age I couldn’t comprehend the magnitude of such a disaster.
To this day the 1994 Northridge earthquake remains one of the most expensive natural disasters in world history.