the Editor: Akhtar
March 04, 2005
Memories of the Northridge
It all began with a tiff on the domestic front.
Perched cozily in the midst of her family in the
idyllic surroundings of Los Angeles, my wife appeared
little inclined to keep to the original time schedule
of our visit to the USA.
“One more week,” she implored as she
perused my impassioned face. Cast in the mold of
the Pakistani Begum - the quintessence of Jane Austen’s
Elizabeth Bennet whose taming of Darcy has inspired
many a feminist - her mild supplications were soon
to give way to an unwavering command.
I tossed listlessly in bed, vacillating between
reason and diffidence, on that fateful morning of
January 17 1994. The clock ticked away merrily,
drowning the ruffled beat of my heart. In the serene
quiet of the wintry California morning, the world
appeared to be a peaceful, livable place. Only my
heart was not at peace. The prospect of resuming
my Assistant Editor assignment at DAWN on the promised
date appeared decidedly slim.
Suddenly the nightmare was over. Or had it just
A deafening roar split the morning air and the earth
began to shake. The quaint, wooden house heaved
and swayed as it faced up to the onslaught.
The good earth had cast off its genteel mold. It
roared and fumed - whining wickedly like a wayward
mortal and tossing wantonly everything that covered
its surface. In the thick of it all, in the midst
of crashing apartments and hissing gas pipelines,
we found ourselves precariously perched at the epicenter
of what was later to be called the Northridge Earthquake.
For 43 grueling seconds, the life-and-death drama
raged incessantly, battering our frail nerves. The
experience was too traumatic to allow an urging
to the Almighty. In a state of abstraction we resigned
ourselves to fate.
The rumbling resembled the thunderous hoof beats
of scores of Mongol cavalry units launching a charge.
Or was it the struggle of long buried dinosaurs
forcing their way to the surface?. To a Los Angeles
Times writer, the tremors “burst from the
earth like a malevolent region of myth and nightmare.”
We gasped for life under the shadow of death. Quaking
with fear, our ten-year old son locked himself in
my arms like a quailed bird. My wife firmly held
on to my hand, an unconscious submission to the
solemn ‘unto life, unto death’ vow.
Each passing moment seemed to have staved off death.
Each approaching second added to our agony. Was
it the beginning of the end?
Outside, severed gas lines hissed from broken foundations,
newspaper reports testified. In some areas, they
turned into leaping flames destroying everything
that came in their way. The earth boomed, toppling
apartment buildings and snapping sturdy beams on
the freeways. It was a sad spectacle of death and
Bob Tur, a helicopter pilot reporter, relayed a
vivid account. The scene from the air was surreal.
“You’re used to seeing the lights of
the city, and it looks like a bright jewel. Unfortunately,
after the earthquake, there were no lights. Once
you crossed over the Santa Monica Mountain range
and Hollywood Hills and looked in to the West Valley
and the Burbank/Glendale areas, it was pitch black,
dotted by fires.
“It was very strange. We almost got spatial
disorientation because you could not see a horizon.
There was so much smoke and no visibility that it
was difficult to keep the helicopter level. We went
into another area and saw water mains flowing 50
to 60 feet in the air and I realized there would
be a water problem in L.A., a contamination problem.
So, we reported that and then the sun began to rise.”
There was much more to report.
There was a gas and water main that had broken apart,
and there was an explosion that had leveled five
houses. That was spectacular since it was very dark.
This geyser of fire was rising 50 feet into the
The crimson rays of the sun that wintry morning
uncovered a gory sight. In the space of a few seconds,
parts of the entrancing San Fernando Valley and
adjoining Los Angeles counties, had been reduced
to rubble. The Northridge Quake emerged as one of
the most costly natural disasters in American history.
James Lee Witt, head of the Federal Emergency Management
Agency (FEMA), put the reconstruction figures above
$ 30 billion.
It was only natural that doctors had their hands
full with shocked, groaning patients as the quake
struck. Ed Lowder, an emergency room physician,
was at the Northridge Hospital Medical Center when
the ground rocked. “We were really hoping
we could make it to daylight before we got too overwhelmed,”
he recalled. “Possibly the most seriously
injured people that we saw in the first hour were
people with heart attacks. Then later on in the
day, before noontime, we saw several broken backs
and head injuries. There were all kinds of people
just milling around. I have been told we delivered
20 babies in the emergency room that day. Three
of them were in the parking lot.”
JoanCardone, a resident in Obstetrics and Gynecology,
thought the entire situation resembled “working
in the Third World - with no monitors - and it made
me think how unprepared I was. We had no fetus scopes.
So we tried to listen to the baby with a stethoscope.
In other parts of the hospital, the people on ventilators
had to be hand-ventilated because there was no power.”
Cardone found the babies “amazingly quiet
through it all, maybe because they were being held
all the time.”
One patient who had delivered had not received any
Exceeding 2,500 the aftershocks were a constant
reminder that all was not over yet. The earth could
go on the warpath again in that stretch of the Wild
West and the much feared ‘Big One’ could
rock Los Angeles. For days we slept in the open
in shivering cold and woke up to jangling jolts
as the nightmare continued. One aftershock measured
5 on the Richter scale.
My pre-earthquake observations had left a poor impression
of the American society on my mind. The average
American appeared a slovenly, easy-going individual
lost in the trivialities of the Nancy Kerrington-Tony
Harding rivalry, the Laurenna Bobbit case, Michael
Jackson’s trial, etc. The media played up
the issues with undue zest. The newspapers’
first pages were not any different. They focused
on events that appeared commonplace, hardly warranting
the coverage they got. The TV talk shows were certainly
not an improvement. To me, the average American
appeared a slapdash dullard who went through the
monotonous drudgery of work-a-day life with religious
consistency. No one appeared to tax his mind about
the serious issues plaguing the world.
I was wrong in making this summation. The post-earthquake
events were to prove an eye opener.
The individual, group, and governmental response
to the quake was exemplary. The public did not panic.
Its ingrained sense of discipline showed demonstrably
in the hour of crisis. The crime rate dropped, prices
remained steady, and the traffic barely hours after
the quake, remained orderly on the bumpy, splintered
roads. The Federal Emergency Management Agency speedily
responded to requests for financial assistance.
Even appeals on phone did not go unheeded and the
affected families received checks within weeks of
making a call.
Despite the psychological setback occasioned by
the aftershocks, the recovery operations gained
steam with time. The latent dynamism of the American
nation was all too evident. And there was a humane
side to it.
“Call on us. We’re standing by to do
whatever it takes…We will waive the recurring
charges for Call Forwarding, The Message Center,
and Pacific Bell Voice Mail for three months for
anyone who lost their home or business,” announced
Pacific Bell. The Department of Water and Power
provided free water to displaced persons. It also
offered a handsome rebate for the purchase of a
new water-conserving model. The Los Angeles Fire
Department formed a team of 22 firefighters to handle
major retrieval operations among the 1273 residential
buildings declared unsafe.
Scouring 75-year-old Annette Grossman’s apartment,
they made a find that brought tears to her eyes.
“This is priceless, how are you going to replace
this?” asked Grossman, as she inspected her
late parents’ 50th wedding anniversary album,
pulled from the debris of her second-floor apartment.
“I didn’t expect to see it again.”
Our own family formed of a heterogeneous assemblage
of Aligarians, Pathans, Sindhis, Punjabis, and Hyderabadis,
had gathered under one roof to weather the storm.
Miandad’s ouster from the cricket team and
chances of the ‘Big One’ rocking Los
Angeles were often debated as we whiled away our
time in playing scrabble and gaining familiarity
with incongruous words like zucchini, zonked, jejune,
quoin, and quivive beginning with the high-scoring
letters z,q, and q. Faiz’s kalam had an enlivening
A high-scoring move was often accompanied with a
recital of his poetry. The present would merge in
the past and youthful fancies would assume dreamy
hues as an aftershock raised the specter of death.
Alqissae mal-o-ghamae ulfat peh hanso tum
Ya ashk bahati raho, faryad karo tum
Maazi pae nadamat hoe tumhaen yah kae mussarat
Khamosh para soae gaa damandei ulfat
It was a heart-warming family affair. The Mohajirs’
ungrudging adoration for Faiz, the Punjabis’
uninhibited love for Urdu, respectful Pathan and
Sindhi bahus, Hyderabadi khana, Aligarian adab -
glowing features of our society - testified to the
Pakistani family’s strong ethnic bonds in
a distant land, in the land of the free. (Repeated)