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AP WAS THERE: Earthquake rocks Los Angeles area

Friday - 1/17/2014, 3:00am  ET

Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- EDITOR'S NOTE -- On Jan. 17, 1994, Associated Press reporter Catherine O'Brien was in Los Angeles when the Northridge earthquake struck at 4:31 a.m. local time. Freeways fell, buildings collapsed, fires ignited. After the shaking stopped, dozens were dead, and more than 9,000 were hurt. Twenty years after its original publication, the AP is making this early report available to its subscribers.

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A violent earthquake struck Southern California before dawn today, turning freeways into rubble, collapsing buildings with a savage power and igniting fires that sent swirls of smoke across the hazy, battered city. At least 24 people died.

The quake, centered in the San Fernando Valley, buckled overpasses on three freeways, trapping motorists in tons of concrete rubble. It severed Interstate 5, California's main north-south highway, and Interstate 10, the nation's busiest freeway.

"This place was moving like a jackhammer was going at it," said Richard Goodis of Sherman Oaks, an affluent San Fernando Valley suburb. "Our bedroom wall tore away. I was looking at the ceiling one moment, then I was looking at the sky. I thought we were dead."

The quake derailed a freight train carrying hazardous material and briefly closed several airports, including Los Angeles International. Power and telephone service were lost throughout Southern California.

Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and California Gov. Pete Wilson declared states of emergency, and President Clinton said he expected to issue a federal disaster declaration later in the day.

Wilson called out the National Guard. In addition, fire rescue teams responded from as far away as San Francisco.

The quake struck at 4:31 a.m., and measured a preliminary 6.6 on the Richter scale, said Kate Hutton, a seismologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Although not as strong as some quakes in recent years, it was unusually destructive because of its location in a populous area.

A swarm of aftershocks, some as strong as 5 on the Richter scale, jostled the region throughout the morning, and seismologists said they could continue for several days.

The dead, according to hospital and police reports, were:

- Fourteen people crushed to death in an apartment building in Northridge.

- Five people who died of quake-related heart attacks, three at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and two at Holy Cross Medical Center in Sylmar.

- Two people who died when a hillside home collapsed in Sherman Oaks.

- One woman who broke her neck when she slipped and struck a crib at her home in Rancho Cucamonga in San Bernardino County.

- A Los Angeles police officer whose motorcycle sailed off a severed freeway overpass, falling nearly 25 feet to the road below.

- A person who fell from a sixth-floor window at a downtown hotel.

Referring to the ruins of the Northridge apartment building, fire Capt. Steve Bascom said: "We've got a three-story apartment that's now a two-story. ... We've got people we're pulling out all the time."

The building, half a block from California State University, Northridge, housed mostly college students. An identical building next to it buckled, but didn't collapse. Hundreds of people watched firefighters search the rubble.

The entire building "shifted north about six feet," said fire Battalion Chief Bob De Feo. A third-floor resident, Eric Pearson, told Cable News Network that he felt a huge jolt that lifted the building off its foundation, moved it over and slammed it down.

In a dramatic and dangerous rescue nearby, searchers spent hours digging through the wreckage of a parking garage at the Northridge Fashion Center before pulling out a 35-year-old street sweeper alive. The quake had turned the multi-story garage into a 20-foot-high pancake of concrete, and transformed the mall's Bullocks department store into a gnarled pile of concrete and steel.

Richard Andrews, California's emergency services director, said the early hour and the Martin Luther King holiday reduced the number of people exposed to injury in the quake.

That was easy to forget in the chaos at the Sylmar hospital, which was swamped by more than 250 new patients. The hospital's disaster coordinator, Mark Wallerstein, told those without serious injury to go elsewhere.

"We have no power, no laboratory, no X-rays, no pharmacy and almost no food," Wallerstein told them. He later said the hospital was operating on emergency power.

In Los Angeles, Cedars Sinai was receiving "a tidal wave of walking wounded," hospital spokesman Ron Wise said.

Three other hospitals, Holy Cross, Panorama City and Sepulveda, were forced to evacuate patients because of quake damage.

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