the Editor: Akhtar
May 28 , 2016
In the Land of the Free, In the Home of the Brave
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 impassive 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 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 begun?
A deafening roar split the morning air and the earth began to shake. The quaint, wooden house where we were staying, 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 everything that covered its surface. In the thick of it all, in the midst of crashing structures and hissing 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 hoofbeats 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 youngest child 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 stave 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. The description was gripping. 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 destruction. The Los Angeles Times account of the unravelling tragedy was graphic and telling.
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 LA, a contamination problem. So, we reported that and then the sun began to rise.”
The media had much more to describe.
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 sky.
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.”
Joan Cardone, 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 medication.
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 such 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 hardly 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 or her mind about the serious issues plaguing the world.
I could not be more wrong. The post-earthquake events were soon 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 traffic barely hours after the quake, remained orderly on the bumpy, splintered roads. The Federal Emergency Management Agency quickly 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 j. Faiz’s kalam had an enlivening influence.
A high-scoring move was often accompanied with a recital of his poetry. The present would merge in the past and youthful fancies 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, in the home of the brave.