Leon Worden

The earth groaned as its bowels moved

By Leon Worden
Wednesday, January 17, 1996

he walls heaved. Furniture flew. The earth groaned as its bowels moved. Danielle and I bolted from our bed.
    Instantly we knew it was The Big One.
    Danielle hit the deck by the bedside. I rode it out in a door frame. When the shaking stopped, we ran.
    Lost inside our own apartment, we ended up in the guest bathroom. From its window we saw an apartment building down the block, fully engulfed in flames. Two blocks farther, the second and third floors of the Northridge Meadows Apartments were now the first and second floors.
    Our stay in Northridge was brief but memorable. It was one leg of our circuitous journey from Newhall to Saugus. We would not return.
    I found the front door and threw it open. Unwittingly, I had grabbed our bathrobes from the closet. We put them on and stepped out into the ankle-deep water.
    "Great," we said. On top of everything else, it was raining.
    The elderly woman's cries from the unit next door were faint. She was trapped in her bedroom. Another one hit as I pulled her out.
    Then we realized it wasn't raining at all. The courtyard swimming pool had exploded.
    I went back inside for shoes, socks, shorts, keys, cash, eyeglasses, lighters and cigarettes. Just the essentials.
    It took forever. Two minutes, maybe.
    We had to get home to Santa Clarita — if it was still there. Clad in our bathrobes, we got into the car and headed out.
    The streets were flooded. Bricks and rubble hid beneath the black water. We plowed through it, slowly. The valley floor was littered with the vehicles of the hasty and unlucky, who had bottomed out or crashed.
    We turned north onto Balboa. Ahead of us, a gas jet under the street was shooting flames 100 feet into the sky. It gutted the structures on either side.
    We hopped onto the 118 Freeway and were diverted right back off the Hayvenhurst onramp. A bridge had collapsed. We drove up Rinaldi, again faced with the threat of bottoming out or impaling ourselves on the Unseen.
    We reached the 405. It was clear sailing. But the fires on the Sylmar hillsides left us little hope for finding Santa Clarita intact.
    We slowed as we approached the split of Interstate 5 and Highway 14. A helicopter sat on the Golden State, blocking our way.
    Then we saw it. The same bridge that fell in 1971 had fallen again. And again, it claimed a life.
    It was about 5:20 a.m. when we barreled up the 14 Freeway. We were among the last to enter the Santa Clarita Valley from the south for days.
    The view from the highway blew our minds. Santa Clarita looked unscathed.
    The view was deceiving. My boyhood home in Valencia Hills, which survived 1971 and where my mother still lived, was destroyed.
    We checked on our families. Everyone was shaken but alive.
    That evening my father-in-law and I went to City Hall to see if we could help. George Caravalho, with special emergency powers and duties as city manager, had the situation under control. At least it seemed that way.
    George and his deputy, Ken Pulskamp, had arrived on the scene some 13 hours earlier, about the time Danielle and I crossed Newhall Pass.
    George and Ken looked bizarre in their hard hats.
    Maps were strewn about the council tables. Phone lines and generator cables criss-crossed the floor. Electricians carried out their marching orders and eagerly returned for more.
    In a couple of hours, they evacuated the building.
    That day and the ensuing weeks gave us many heroes, far too numerous to remember.
    The National Guard. Miller Brewing Company. KBET. My mother-in-law (yes!) and the rest of the 'round-the-clock volunteers at the Red Cross shelter in Newhall.
    "Tent City Mayor" George Pederson. Adele MacPherson, who executed disaster plans. Gail Ortiz, who kept the information flowing. And everyone else who performed above and beyond the call of duty.
    Which was just about everybody in town.
    Randy Wicks said it best. Funny, how it takes a calamity for all of us to pull together.
* * *
    Look for the next Old Town Newhall Gazette inside your subscriber or newsstand edition of The Signal this Saturday.
    Leon Worden is a Santa Clarita resident.

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