TJ Sullivan is a literary author, investigative journalist, photographer and college instructor whose work has been published in a myriad of newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and The Detroit News, the latter of which he delivered while working as a paperboy during his childhood in the City of Detroit. Sullivan's writing has received many top national honors, including the Sigma Delta Chi Award, the second oldest journalism award in the United States after the Pulitzer Prize. Other state and national accolades include first-place awards from Best of the West, the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, the Associated Press News Executive Council and the Los Angeles Press Club. In 2006, Sullivan was commissioned a Kentucky Colonel, the highest title of honor bestowed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, the home of his alma mater, the University of Kentucky. Sullivan's years as a full-time newspaper reporter were spent at several esteemed publications, including the Santa Fe New Mexican, The Albuquerque Tribune, and the Ventura County (CA) Star. Sullivan has also written for NBC Universal, The Dallas Morning News and the preeminent public affairs website LA Observed. Sullivan is frequently sought as an informative and entertaining speaker on the craft of writing, the art of investigative reporting, and the intricacies of state, county and municipal government. His presentations have been featured at professional development conferences conducted by both The Poynter Institute and the national Society of Professional Journalists. Sullivan has taught journalism courses and coached writers at UCLA's award-winning student newspaper, The Daily Bruin. He has also taught as a part-time faculty member in the Journalism Department at California State University, Northridge. And, in 2006, he was an adviser to SPJ's The Working Press, an internship program for college-level student journalists. Sullivan is currently at work on his third novel, [working title "Howard is Home from The Loop"]. He lives in Chicago, Il.


Northridge quake still unsettling after decade

By TJ Sullivan
Published: 01/11/2004
Ventura County Star

The freeway overpass rolled and pitched and the tires on Wayne Scharphorn's pickup bounced as though they were superballs, first left, then right.

The curly cord of his CB radio tangled itself in the steering column, and he screamed into the microphone still keyed down in his fist.


In less than one minute at 4:31 a.m. on Jan. 17, 1994, the shock that knocked Scharphorn and his fellow commuters from curb to curb did the same to millions of others still asleep in their beds in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. It was a magnitude 6.7, the most costly earthquake in U.S. history, with a price tag estimated between $20 billion and $40 billion. It became known simply as "Northridge," bearing the name of the community under which the epicenter was located, but it affected a far larger area.

Scharphorn could see it coming before he felt it atop an Interstate 5 overpass. The floor of the San Fernando Valley before him boiled with an almost-supernatural flash of thousands of transformer sparks and arcing power. But before his brain could process what it was taking in, the shaking hit his wheels and he was forced to wrestle for control.

"I was hoarse from screaming," said Scharphorn, a construction worker who was commuting from his home in Palmdale to Los Angeles at the time.

It began nearly 11 miles down, on a previously unknown, blind thrust fault. The ground moved upward at an angle, compacting soil and crunching rocks. By the time it reached the surface, parts of the Santa Susana Mountains were an additional 2 feet or more above sea level, and televisions and toasters were catapulted across rooms. It started massive natural gas fires from the San Fernando Valley to Fillmore, collapsed bridges and buildings, and buried some people alive beneath piles of concrete, plaster, wood and debris. It claimed 57 lives, injured more than 9,000, and displaced in excess of 20,000 residents from their homes.

Buildings tagged

Once building inspectors walked over, under and through it all, they "yellow tagged" about 7,300 buildings, allowing only restricted entry. An additional 1,600 or more were "red tagged," a mark that meant they were too unsafe for anyone to enter.

Ten years and tens of thousands of aftershocks later, the scars left behind are still vivid. Some are ugly and obvious, like the two crippled buildings that still flank the entrance to Fillmore's main drag of Central Avenue, unrepaired by their owners. Others glimmer like the so-called silver lining that comes with federal financial relief -- Fillmore's stately new City Hall and Simi Valley's state-of-the-art police station.

A few of the reminders are just blank spots, such as the one that was once the Fillmore Hotel, a building whose unreinforced brick walls collapsed on several vehicles outside, giving a fishbowl view into the bedrooms of tenants on the second floor.

"That's usually the common picture you'd see in all the newspapers, with the walls blown out and the cars underneath," Fillmore Fire Chief Pat Askren said as he stood near the vacant lot.

Similar reminders are spread throughout neighborhoods, where new houses have been slipped into the footprints of shattered ones.

"You have no way of predicting what an earthquake's going to do," Askren said. "You'd drive down a block and see houses that were fine and then one in the middle of them was down off its foundation."

And underneath all of it remains a scar of fear, one that seems to smart each time a temblor hits the Golden State. It manifests itself in the form of ringing phones at Quake Kare Inc. in Moorpark. Last month, after the magnitude 6.5 San Simeon earthquake in Central California, the phones began ringing almost immediately.

"I got the same stories from a lot of people," said Sherry Heitz, the owner of the business, which sells disaster kits containing such items as water and chemical glow sticks. "They looked at their supplies and realized they didn't have enough. … That's usually what happens when an earthquake hits: People realize that we're vulnerable."

To re-create the power of the Northridge earthquake would likely require more than 10 million tons of TNT, enough dynamite to match the strength of about 660 atomic bombs like the one dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, during World War II.

The force made barstools swivel slightly in Las Vegas and rumbled fields in California's Central Valley. Even tourists in Ensenada, Mexico, felt their beds jiggle.

In Southern California, however, people were shaken so hard they weren't even safe in their beds. In Northridge, 16 occupants of the Northridge Meadows Apartments died when the first floor was pancaked beneath the floors above it.

Span swayed afterward

The few people on the roads at that early hour, including Scharphorn, were nearly thrown to their deaths. Indeed, the same bridge on which Scharphorn was traveling later sent a Los Angeles motorcycle officer to his death as people watched. The officer, Clarence Wayne Dean, 46, was on his way to work shortly after the quake occurred and apparently didn't know the bridge had been knocked out.

The shaking was so powerful it made the span sway even after the earthquake had stopped.

"When I got stopped, I was sitting on this bridge and the truck was still bouncing," said Scharphorn, now 54 and living in Agoura Hills. "The guy who was in front of me was yelling on his radio that the bridge had gone down and he thought someone had gone over with it. I just stuck my leg out the truck … and before I could step down the ground came up and hit my leg. That's when it hit me what was happening. … The bridge was bouncing."

The transition bridge from Highway 14 to southbound Interstate 5, on which Scharphorn had regularly traveled in those days during his commute, broke apart a few yards from where he had stopped. It later became one of the most common images associated with the earthquake, and was described by the U.S. Geological Survey as "one of the most spectacular and costliest freeway failures."

Freeways collapsed at seven sites and 170 bridges sustained varying degrees of damage, according to a report compiled by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Although no such road failures occurred in Ventura County, there were still many fires, as well as broken homes and businesses.

East of downtown Fillmore in the Eldorado Mobile Home Estates, Pat and Bud Untiedt woke up to the sound of a neighbor screaming before their mobile home was knocked off its stands, sending the supports up through the floor in splintered explosions. One stand erupted beneath the Untiedts' bed, putting a bump in the mattress between them.

Across the street, Hank and Mary Lou Carrillo stayed put until the supports shifted and their unit fell, sending it onto the ground in the corner of the home that was their bedroom.

Outside the entrance to the community, on Highway 126, a natural gas line broke and burst into a geyser of fire, causing some back in town to worry that the entire park was burning.

"There were flames that had to be shooting up 100 feet or more in the air," said Mary Lou Carrillo, 66. "All you could see in this direction was fire and flames."

Not far from downtown, Roger Campbell, 53, felt his entire house fall off its foundation, the force jamming his front door against the threshold. As he wrenched it open, he worried that one of the dams up the Santa Clara River Valley — Lake Piru, Pyramid or Castaic -- could be broken and that a wall of water would be roaring through the darkness toward a shocked and unsuspecting town. He moved his family to higher ground immediately, and then went to the fire station.

"From there it was just one call after another," said Campbell, who at the time was a volunteer firefighter and a councilman for the city of Fillmore.

On their own

Unlike the recent wildfires, which brought firefighters from throughout Southern California to Ventura County streets, after the Northridge earthquake it seemed no one outside the individual cities knew what had happened to them.

Immediately after the earthquake, those who still had phone service called for help and heard the unimaginable -- help was in short supply. Published news reports in The Star tell of one homeowner being advised that there were too many calls for emergency services to handle. As flames licked up the ceiling of her garage, she was advised to simply evacuate.

In Simi Valley, a hillside water storage tank broke and sent a flood through a residence, leaving nearly a foot of mud in the home. In another part of the city, on Sabina Circle, about half a dozen houses moved 10 feet and into the Arroyo Simi.

At the city's police station, radio communications were blacked out. A water heater on the second story of the station fell and broke through the floor, sending a waterfall down the stairway. Damaged light fixtures and wires dangled from the ceilings. Paper records were scattered like tree leaves.

"When I called in … they weren't aware of how much damage there was out there," said Simi Valley City Manager Mike Sedell, an assistant city manager at the time.

"We were trying to figure out where this thing happened," said Greg Stratton, who was the mayor of Simi Valley in 1994.

County emergency workers were in a similar predicament.

"Even dispatch didn't know," said Sandi Wells, who has since retired from her post as chief information officer of the Ventura County Fire Department. "Communication completely broke down."

She and her husband, Arve, walked around their Sunset Hills neighborhood in Thousand Oaks that morning to check on the well-being of their neighbors. "There were people that were standing on the sidewalk crying," she said.

Television news cameras frustrated the few people who had power to watch the broadcasts, because they focused almost exclusively on the damage in the San Fernando Valley.

"On Wednesday morning (two days after the earthquake), we had gotten no help from anywhere," Campbell said. "All the news channels, everybody was talking about how bad the valley was."

It was the same elsewhere in and out of Ventura County, as Scharphorn found on his return to Palmdale north of Los Angeles on the morning of the quake.

"There was a guy on a CB radio … who was just screaming for help because there was no phone lines," Scharphorn said. The man apparently was in a mobile-home park that was on fire.

"We were trying to get information so that we could get somebody with a cell phone or something to get the Fire Department to him. And I don't think they ever got there. We couldn't reach anybody on the emergency services on the CB radios."

Efforts to improve communications have been made throughout Ventura County since the quake. Emergency services now have built redundancy into their systems, to be sure they can communicate. Simi Valley established the Community Emergency Response Team to train residents.

"There was no shortage of people who wanted to participate," said Randy White, one of two emergency service coordinators employed by the Simi Valley Police Department.

The tally

In Simi Valley, population 111,000, there were 175 buildings rendered unsafe, and an additional 823 so damaged that they were restricted to limited entry.

Fillmore's losses were even greater when considered as a percentage of its population of 13,000. Askren said more than 200 buildings were left uninhabitable, and the downtown, which had been renovated the year before, was a shambles with piles of bricks 3 feet deep blocking Central Avenue.

"This was a nightmare," said Ron Stewart, whose furniture store was destroyed. "I don't have high blood pressure … but I had to take medication for high blood pressure."

Ballard Furniture Store had stood for three generations on Central Avenue in downtown Fillmore, first owned by Stewart's grandfather. But in 10 seconds of shaking it was lost. It has since been rebuilt so strongly that Stewart would rather be there than anywhere else in town during an earthquake.

Linda Brewster, who had been Fillmore's mayor for about two weeks before the earthquake, said the city lost 50 percent of its downtown, 10 percent of its housing stock and 90 percent of its mobile homes.

'Whole lot more devastation'

"We had a whole lot more devastation than Simi Valley or Northridge or Santa Monica," she said.

Although there were no deaths directly associated with the earthquake in Ventura County, injuries were significant, many of them suffered by those who stepped barefoot from beds onto shards of broken glass left by fallen picture frames, mirrors, windows and dishes. One man suffered a broken leg in Fillmore when he was hit by a car whose driver was looking at damage instead of at the road.

Hospitals were overrun with patients suffering broken bones, chest pains and heart attacks. The parking lot of Simi Valley Hospital was converted into an extension of the emergency room to handle the overflow. In Camarillo, which lost its power like most of the rest of the county, a mother gave birth by generator-powered light.

Within a couple of days, President Clinton visited the San Fernando Valley to survey the damage, a situation that so angered Campbell that he vented to one of the only television news crews he saw. While on camera, Campbell sniped that the "F" on a hillside above Fillmore stood for "Forgotten." In response, Campbell said, $1 million in federal aid came swiftly, along with a message from a Federal Emergency Management Agency representative that "the president has not forgotten you."

The character of several Ventura County neighborhoods was redrawn and rebuilt, all with the help of millions from FEMA, and the dollars that came from insurance companies.

Though few would have chosen it as a path to redevelopment, many people in Fillmore look upon the result favorably.

"It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, and I don't think anybody would fault me for saying that," said Brewster, the former mayor.

Before the earthquake, Fillmore's City Hall was partly housed in a dumpy building that was shared with the Ventura County Sheriff's Department. The Planning Department was in a converted residence, and Public Works was in a trailer.

With the federal money that followed the earthquake, the town was able to build a stately City Hall beside railroad tracks, a scene that has since been featured in dozens of movies and television shows.

Simi Valley residents shared a similar experience.

The benefits

"It would have happened anyway," Stratton said of the new Simi Valley police station. "But the quake did two things: It showed us how bad we needed it … and it got us $4 million."

The police station is now perhaps the safest and most secure building in the city.

"This is what they call an 'essential facility,' " Sedell said. "It's built like a cage of rebar. If there is any kind of earthquake, it will rattle and move, but it won't come apart."

Homes were rebuilt, too, many with the help of earthquake insurance policies, something that is far less likely to happen again if there is another major earthquake.

Insurance coverage has decreased dramatically since 1994, as the price for it has about doubled. As a result, about half the number of homeowners who had coverage when the Northridge earthquake struck still have it. In addition, those policies offer far less assistance.

"The whole thing with earthquake (insurance) is they have to offer it if they sell you a homeowners policy, but they're not too crazy about selling it because of the exposure to catastrophe," said Bruce Patton, senior staff counsel for the California Department of Insurance.

For example, earthquake insurance used to cover $50,000 to $75,000 in home contents, things such as televisions and stereos. "Now you just have to provide $5,000 in content coverage," Patton said.

Another dramatic difference is in the money homeowners get to find housing if they're put out of their home for an extended period. It used to be common to get $20,000, which went to pay for things such as motel bills. Now companies only have to offer $1,500, which state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi said is "maybe" enough to finance a couple of weeks in a motel eating fast food.

As a result of such coverage changes, and a false sense of security that has set in during the past decade, the number of homeowners purchasing policies has dropped by nearly half from 1996 to 2000.

Garamendi said it's a financial disaster waiting to happen, both for those who don't have coverage, as well as for those who do.

"The policy, as troublesome as it is, is better than not having a policy," he said.

Stronger buildings

Although it may be little consolation to those living and working in older structures, buildings that are built today are far more capable of withstanding a major earthquake than those built before the 1970s.

The lessons learned have made buildings safer, said Fred Turner, staff structural engineer for the California Seismic Safety Commission, a public policy advisory agency.

For instance, if a building is near a major, active earthquake fault, it must meet more strict requirements designed to protect it from the long pulses of ground motion that can occur.

Steel-frame buildings also must meet higher standards, a direct response to the more than 100 buildings that were supposed to withstand such motions but still failed in the Northridge earthquake.

Less likely to crumble, fall

"Many wood-frame structures now have more rigid metal connectors, since it was discovered after the Northridge earthquake that earlier connectors were often too flexible," Turner said in an e-mail response to questions.

Concrete buildings are also built in a way that makes them less likely to crumble and fall.

The proof that there's value in making these kinds of changes was seen even in 1994, said Lucille M. Jones, scientist-in-charge of the Earthquake Hazards Team for the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena. She points to the minimal amount of damage done in the community of Santa Clarita.

Because much of Santa Clarita was built in the 20 years before 1994, its codes reflected lessons learned after the magnitude 6.6 Sylmar earthquake of 1971. "Just compare Santa Clarita to Fillmore. Santa Clarita had much stronger shaking," Jones said.

Nonetheless, there is some doubt about the safety of future structures.

Some structural engineers say the state took a step backward in a recent decision by the California Building Standards Commission, which adopted the National Fire Protection Association code book instead of that published by the International Code Council. Some say the ICC more directly addresses earthquake safety standards and is preferred by structural engineers.

It's a debate that is certain to continue as a new governor in Sacramento decides whether to change the commission's membership.

Turner called it "truly an embarrassing situation since, historically, California has been the leader over all other states in building standards and code enforcement.

"This is no longer the case."

Scharphorn expects that lessons were learned from Northridge, that bridges were rebuilt stronger so that life could go on.

He even forced himself to test it.

"I was one of the first when they reopened that bridge," Scharphorn said of the Interstate 5-Highway 14 overpass. "I made a point of driving over it after they reopened it, kind of like getting back up on a horse after you've fallen off."

The memories, however, never change.

"I still get a kind of tightness in my throat," he said, "and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up."

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