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Remembering the Northridge Earthquake two decades later

It was 4:31 in the morning exactly 20 years ago this Thursday and I was awake when the earthquake struck. I was working on invitations to a house-warming party for my first house I just bought. I heard something like a train rumble, then the TV I was watching flew across the room and hit me in the ribcage, giving me bruises I could show off for about two weeks after.

Images of the earthquake in Studio City
Images of the earthquake in Studio City
Getty Images
Damage from the Northridge quake.
Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

I stumbled to the doorway, and saw my housemate Sabin clutching his Pomeranian pup Krypto in the doorway across the hall. We instinctively ran to the doorways as we were told and trained for years. We saw the wooden floor of his house roll upward, like someone had taken a carpet and caused a hill to roll across the floor, and suddenly, the seven-foot mirror down the hall literally walked back and forth down the hallway and smashed (as if in slow motion) in the hallway between us.

I remember shouting to Sabin but not being able to hear myself, I remember Krypto's little bloody footprints because of our broken dishes and the smashed mirrors all over. (We picked the glass out his paws quickly.) I remember driving through downed power lines and non-working streetlights to get to my house when dawn broke to see how my house on the hill fared in historic Whitley Heights across from the Hollywood Bowl. I had the house bolted to the foundation a week before, and the house two doors down built the same time in the 1920s slid six inches off its foundation. "Best money you ever spent," said my building contractor. I lost a few windows, the chimney fell in and there were enough cracks in the stucco to warrant a FEMA grant.

I still had the party a few days later and everyone was weary about talking about it, so I had a room designated specifically for "Earthquake Talk" and inside was a flashlight shining on a McDonald's vanilla shake and a KFC fluffy bun with a sign saying: "Was it a shake, or was it a roll?"

Everyone had a different experience 20 years ago and many experiences were far more dramatic than mine, but we'll never forget that morning! Here are a few remembrances from locals and an update of the Los Angeles Times story I did on many people's experiences of the earthquake.

Studio City resident Ryan Witkosky (see the video) was a kid who remembered "It felt very interesting—fun like some sort of a carnival ride."

Local writer Mary McGrath in her Examiner column recalls being a kid going to school at North Hollywood High School and her twin sister screaming "we're all going to die!" in the earlier 1971, and for the later one, recalls, "We were up in a small motel in Mussel Shoals near Santa Barbara when that earthquake hit. It was about 4 a.m. and I could swear that the motel was going to slide into the ocean. The room was rattling like it was possessed by a poltergeist, and I assumed the epicenter was right outside our motel window."

Click here for more of her memories:

A woman and her dog were rescued in Studio City by firefighters, another house slid down the hill. Another friend's car was crushed parked outside a building that collapsed.

A total of 57 people were killed, 8,700 were injured, there was $49 billion in damages, and thousands more were affected by Valley Fever (a persistent cough and fever) which I was diagnosed with six months later.

"That earthquake was the beginning of my insomnia and the beginning of my nightly intake of Ambien," recalls Studio City artist Laurie Freitag. "I had been working at Channel 9 news, so, in the back of my mind, I was prepared for "something." The week before the quake, the news had been reporting on many, many small quakes off the Santa Monica Bay. So I had my flashlight in my bed. I was sleeping in clothes getting ready to run. My shoes were right next to my bed. So when all that shaking started, I went right into "fireman mode." I climbed over furniture in my room to hit the wall light. The light wouldn't go on. I grabbed the phone to make a call. No signal. SHIT! Just then another shaker rolled through my third floor Toluca Lake apartment and I threw myself against a wall. I couldn't believe this was it! Was I watching the end of the world? When would the shaking stop?'"

In my story in the Los Angeles Times, I mentioned people I am still in touch with, and many who are long gone:

Evelyn Moriarty, 67, was shaken for a moment. Her lively fluff-ball Marco Polo, a 10-month-old Shih Tzu, had catapulted off the bed. Marco yelped, cocked his head, perked up his ears and wanted to play. Evelyn was immediately at ease.

"Sure, I was awakened a bit earlier than usual, but I figured Marco had to go for a walk," she said. So at 4:45 a.m., about 15 minutes after one of Los Angeles' biggest earthquakes, Moriarty strolled out of her North Hollywood apartment and acted as if nothing had happened. If Marco didn't care, she didn't care.

Evelyn and Marco are long gone now. She is buried at Westwood Village Memorial Park, not far from her friend whom she was the stand-infor in movies, Marilyn Monroe.

As soon as I heard the epicenter was in the San Fernando Valley, where I lived for five years, my thoughts went to the many people I knew there.

Rick Carl in Studio City remembers screaming "Nooooo!" during the shaking. He was trapped upstairs by a bookshelf that crashed halfway down the stairwell, and he found himself scaling the banister and avoiding glass shards.

Caryn Forrest, who lives in the trendy Encino Oaks complex off the Ventura Freeway, admitted she always teased her neighbor, attorney Randy Spencer, for having an "earthquake cabinet" of food and water. But as she crawled through debris in the dark, it was Randy she called to, and he rescued her and gave her a flashlight and radio.

Actor Greg Cummins helped evacuate the building and check for damage. Caryn took an hour to come down because she had to tidy up. "You never know who's going to come into your apartment during a disaster like this," she said. Greg and Caryn went in search of breakfast. "As we drove down Ventura Boulevard we saw people lining up at pay phones in their pajamas helping each other, and there was glass all over and we saw whole storefronts had fallen into the street."

Rick doubled-down and bought a nice sturdy house in Burbank, Caryn moved back East with her family, and Greg went on to play Luther in the sitcom "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia."

My friend Dan Niswander lived closest to the epicenter and told me then, "I'm now aware that by living here you have to know how you're going to react at a moment's notice wherever you are. I'll never be unprepared again." (He moved back to the area after leaving for about a decade.)

I knew Barbara Palermo in Woodland Hills would be worried about her three cats. During the quake, she clung to her husband, Phil, as the bedroom window blew out, the chimney crashed through their roof and plaster showered them. Then she checked on her cats.

Even Chester, huge and orange, lost his cool and seemed jittery all day. He kept sitting under a hole in the roof near the fireplace, and Barbara kept moving him. The other two hid.

Barbara and her husband Phil lost some priceless heirlooms. That night, they had a candlelight dinner with neighbors: canned pork and beans cooked on a camping stove.

My friend Jerrianne Hayslett has been through serious moments in the past, and said, "I have a terrible headache that just won't quit. I feel woozy all the time like the house is crooked."

Barbara and Phil still live in their house in Woodland Hills. Jerrianne and her husband Hibby moved to be next to their grandchildren in Wisconsin.

My dream as a journalist has always been, after experiencing the Big One, to run over to Universal Studios to interview the people who were on the Earthquake part of the tram ride during the studio tour and interview them. See what it's like here:

Now here's the ominous part. Two decades ago, I teased all my friends earlier in the week, mentioning the unseasonable heat of the week.

"You know that most of the earthquakes in Southern California have happened when it's been unusually hot, and they've occurred in the middle of the week, like a Wednesday or Thursday," I would say. Of course, actual seismologists and geological experts laughed when I suggested the link.

This week, it's been unseasonably hot, and the anniversary of the quake is on Thursday.

Do you remember where you were? Tell us in the COMMENTS area below . . .

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