Saturday, October 01, 2011

Remembering the Whittier Earthquake: October 1, 1987

The parking structure for the old May Company and Hinshaw's Department
stores at Whittier Blvd and Painter Ave. 

Twenty-four years ago today, Southern California was hit by what has come to be known as "The Whittier Earthquake".  The earthquake, a 5.9 on the Richter scale struck at 7:42 am. Three days later, on October 4, Whittier was hit by a 5.2 aftershock.

I was at work that day, at McDonnell Douglas in Long Beach. As luck would have it, I was in the head at the time the earthquake struck. I worked in a large hanger, Building 13, at that time. the restrooms were attached to the side of the buildings with an entrance from the inside of the building but more or less, a separate structure. Probably the safest place to be. Right outside the building was a railroad yard.

My first warning was a loud rumbling noise. It got my attention immediately. It became deafeningly loud. I didn't know what to think yet, there wasn't any shaking yet. My first thought was that a train had jumped the track and was heading straight for the building. it was so loud I figured it was going to come through the wall in a second or two. I honest to God figured that was my last day on Earth. Then the rocking and rolling began and then it hit me, it was an earthquake. The shaking was violent, like nothing I felt before, and I've been through quite a few earthquakes. I heard some screaming from the stalls next to me, doors slamming and lots of confusion. I decided to sit this one out (literally). I stayed put. It seemed to go on forever. My only immediate worry, once I realized it was an earthquake was the over hanging fluorescent lights. Somehow they held on.

I could hear screaming and a lot of other noise coming from inside Building 13. as soon as the quake stopped I went back inside the building and it was total chaos. Parts were thrown everywhere, women were crying, everyone was walking around confused. I went back to my job site on the upper fuselage in Department 509. From there we were being directed outside the building.

All I could think about was my family. At the time I was car pooling with Jack Nicholson (no, not that Jack Nicholson) and it was his week to drive, so I couldn't just leave. A few minutes later I found him and we decided we should go home. The drive home was eerie. There were reports on the radio of fallen overpasses on the 605 freeway (that turned out to be false). We took some side roads home. Everywhere we went, people were standing outside their homes. No one wanted to go back inside the houses. Their was a strange silence in the air.

As we got to Whittier it was more of the same, people everywhere. Some homes were knocked off their foundations. I didn't know what to expect. I was afraid of what I might find at home. There were no cell phones in those days and all the phone lines were down. Jeri was eight months pregnant with Savannah at the time, and Meranda and Andrew would have been getting ready for school. We were living on Newlin Ave at the time of the earthquake. I found out a day or two later that Newlin Ave sits directly over the Whittier fault line.

When I got home I found everyone outside, sitting on the front lawn. The kids came running up to me and Jeri looked relieved to see me. Everyone was okay! I went inside the house and it was a mess. Cupboards and drawers open, broken dishes and glass everywhere. pots and pans scattered throughout the kitchen. There were cracks in the wall but no major structural damage. Our personal damage was minimal but it wasn't that way for everyone. Further down Newlin Avenue, several house were severely damaged and eventually had to be torn down and rebuilt. it was like that throughout Uptown Whittier. Uptown Whittier is an historical town with many old homes, some well over a hundred years old, so it goes without saying that they were not built to stand up to an earthquake.

The long gone Whittier Theater on the corner of Whittier Blvd and Hadley Street.

Greenleaf Ave in Uptown Whittier
The major damage though was in the business district,  the "Village" section of Uptown Whittier. I don't know what the exact extent of the damage was but some estimates have been as high as $360, 000, 000. What ever the damage was financially, the physical damage was devastating, lives were lost, and other  lives were turned upside down. Many of Whittier's historical buildings were lost, including the old Whittier Theater on the corner of Hadley Street and Whittier Blvd. I remember taking a walk to the Village with my cousin, David Robles, it was like a war zone with helicopters over head, police and firemen all around and many of the buildings in ruin. It would take years to recover. My uncle Henry De La O's upholstery shop, on Greenleaf  Ave, was destroyed but was reopened a year or so later on Philadelphia Street.

A few days later we celebrated Jeri's birthday on the 3rd and the following morning, somewhere about 4:00am, we were hit with a 5.1 aftershock. If I remember correctly there were quite a few aftershocks but this was the worse. There was some humor to that morning. I grabbed a pair of Levi's and tried my damnedest to put them on. I was squirming like crazy but they just would not get past my knees. Jeri turned on the light and just started laughing. They were her Levi's I was trying to get into  It seemed like almost immediately, there was a knock on the door. It was our friends, Sergio and Denise Billings and their kids. Their home took a harder hit than ours, they wanted to get out quick. We made breakfast and talked about the earthquakes. It was starting to feel like it was never going to end.

It eventually did end and is now a long ago memory. Twenty-four years ago today.

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