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NORTHRIDGE QUAKE WAS 'BIG' ENOUGH, FORMER UTAHN SAYS

Published: Sunday, Jan. 30 1994 12:00 a.m. MST

All those maps in the newspapers with the bull's-eyes . . . that's where we live. The earthquake was centered five miles to the south of us and nine miles down.

None of us were hurt. I had some small cuts on my feet from broken glass, and the next day several unexplained bruises showed up, but other than that, and some very frayed nerves, we are fine.I'm not sure how to explain the experience itself except to say that it was big. And this was my third earthquake. I didn't experience fear as fear per se but as an adrenaline-induced hypersensitivity.

In other more subjective words, everything got extremely interesting.

Marissa just screamed, but she was exceptionally rational after the biggest shaking stopped and I had grabbed Janna.

It wasn't the "Big One" although I thought so at the time. They say that it wasn't that big a quake (6.6), and it didn't last very long. However, it was close to the surface, and it was right under the city, which is why it felt so strong and did so much damage. The serious damage was limited to a fairly small area though. Downtown L.A. looks normal, for example.

The gas main on Balboa that blew up is about a mile away from our house. It was lighting up the mountains with an eerie orange glow. It added that extra element of spice to the experience. (We found out later that a block down from the ruptured gas main the water main had also ruptured. It made for great TV, I'm told.)

As for our house: Everything in it was knocked over.

The china hutch was destroyed along with all the china inside. The chimney looks like it is going to have to be replaced. The wall between our house and the neighbor's house fell over. There are many cosmetic cracks and punctured holes in the walls. Roof tiles slid out of place, and a few near the chimney broke.

When I was replacing the roof tiles I discovered two large metal straps attached to the chimney, which explains why it didn't fall over. One of the flexible copper pipes connecting the water heater to the house plumbing sprang a leak.

However, there doesn't seem to be any structural damage to the house.

Compared to many of our neighbors we are in great shape. Two houses down, there is a crack in the street that runs right into the house. They're giving up on the house.

The extra bit of spice there was that the guy collected old guns. One of them was left loaded and fell off a shelf and went off. The bullet went through their bedroom floor, through the ceiling and shattered one of the roof tiles. (I'm told newer guns are designed not to go off when dropped.)

Besides being relatively luckier, we also seemed to be better prepared than many of the neighbors (partially due, no doubt, to previous experience with earthquakes).

The power went out right away. Water went out a few hours later. But we had flashlights and batteries and a radio and camping gear and drinking water and plenty of food. I knew where my tools were and I turned off the gas to my house and the neighbors' houses on either side.

We gave away a flashlight, some batteries and some film. We had our propane stove going that morning. We told our immediate neighbors we had instant coffee if they wanted some.

The word spread, and soon the whole neighborhood was over for coffee.

There were a lot of aftershocks, including two in the 5-point-something range. We slept outside in our tent the first night. Janna loved it. All of the animals had been accounted for except Molly (cat No. 2), but in the middle of the night she showed up outside of the tent meowing to get in.

Being in a small, confined space with the cat was just too much of an opportunity for Janna to ignore. She spent much of the night crawling back and forth across Marissa and me trying to catch Molly.

Tuesday, my neighbor and I went for a drive to see what was going on in the valley and to stop at a hardware store if possible to pick up some stuff - propane stove equipment for him and water heater flex-tube for me.

We saw a lot of the serious damage firsthand, including the Northridge shopping mall that had collapsed. A lot of people were camping in their yards and in parks and anywhere there was a big clearing. Arrowhead bottled water trucks were giving away free water at the parks.

Many stores were doing business, although they weren't letting people into the stores. They would drag stuff like batteries and camping gear up to the front of the store, and if you needed something weird, they'd go and get it. We went to five different hardware stores.

At each one a steady stream of people would be walking up holding these stupid pieces of water heater flex-tube, only to be told that they had sold out long ago.

At one of the small hardware stores we visited there were a couple of guys who had their eyes on the boxes of stuff the owner had brought out to sell. The owner repeatedly asked these guys to get in line if they wanted something or to just back off. Words were exchanged, and I was a little worried.

We had already purchased our stuff, but I wanted to hang around to make sure nothing happened. The situation cooled down by itself. That's the worst of the rude behavior I saw. In general people really pulled together.

Lucky for me, one of the neighbors (the one with the crack going into the house) had a son in Orange County at the time and said that if I told her exactly what I needed, she'd tell her son and he'd buy it there and bring it the next day. (The phones started working fairly quickly, although the circuits were overloaded.) The second night we slept (sort of) in the house. There was one big aftershock that morning. Acting calm and rational during aftershocks so as not to alarm Janna had worn us out. That (and no gas, electricity or water) made Marissa decide it was time to leave.

She and Janna took a train back to Salt Lake City. I stayed to watch the house and try to clean up.

Later, I got my water heater parts and fixed the water heater. Amazingly, the water came on later that evening. (We're still supposed to boil it.) I cleared out the fridge and barbecued all the no-longer frozen meat with the neighbors. We also drank a particularly tasty cabernet.

Thursday I got through to the gas people and they said they wouldn't make it until at least the weekend. I decided to turn on the gas myself. I turned off the gas at each of the appliances, and then turned on the main. I had to fix the thermocouple on the water heater because it had somehow jiggled loose, but I got it working, and I took my first hot shower since Sunday. It was wonderful. The neighbors came over for one, too.

The day got even better. A UPS truck drove up and delivered a CD that I had ordered from Japan. Twenty minutes later the electricity came on. I played my CD really loud.

I spent Friday and Saturday cleaning up and riding out after-shocks. (No, I'm not even close to being finished.) On one trip to try to find an open grocery store I swear I saw a sign out of the corner of my eye taped to a telephone pole that said "Why own when you can rent?"

Sunday I picked up a reasonably refreshed Marissa and Janna from the train station.

Monday morning: The northernmost entrance onto the freeway I take to work just happened to be mine. They've turned my secret access road into a one-way alternate route, but the freeway was empty. My commute has never been so good. (Monday evening: I spoke too soon. I-5 is a parking lot on the way back.)

There are still people camping in the parks. The National Guard has built tent cities with water and electricity, and the Salvation Army and Red Cross have brought in plenty of supplies, but from what I understand, many of the people are just reluctant to go back indoors.

Things are getting back to normal, but I'm keeping my eye out for a plague of locusts.

*****

Additional Information

About the author

Thant Tessman, a computer programmer for Walt Disney Imagi-neer-ing, lives in Granada Hills, Calif., with his wife, Marissa Smit Tessman, and 2-year-old daughter Janna. The couple grew up in Salt Lake City and attended the University of Utah. The Tessmans lived in Foster City, Calif., during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and Thant Tessman happened to be in Tokyo during a 5.7 earthquake there. The Tessmans' home in Granada Hills is close to Northridge, the epicenter of the 6.6 earthquake that struck Jan. 17. He wrote the following account of the latest quake as a letter for friends. One of them - science writer Joseph Bauman - thought it was so interesting that Deseret News readers would enjoy it also, with Tessman's permission.

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