January 17th 1994 at 4.31am – where were you?
Have you ever been asked where you were at the time of a major event, like President Kennedy’s Assassination, the Berlin Wall coming down, or 9/11? I am sure you know exactly where you were.
I can recall only too well where I was when the Northridge (California) Earthquake struck on January 17th 1994 at 4.31 am in the morning. My husband and I had only been in bed in our home in Burbank for about 30 minutes when we were nearly thrown on to the floor by the force of the first tremours.
Everything in the room started crashing around us, falling from the walls and surfaces throughout, some almost hitting us as we scrambled to get out of bed and make our way to the door-jamb where the advice was to stand in the event of a quake. We tried to find our shoes in the dark as glass splintered around us and the TV set whizzed past our heads. It soon became apparent that standing in the door jamb was a waste of time. Barefooted and half-naked, we had to move.
We tried to make our way to the door only to discover trying to undo bolts and chains and searching for keys in the dark when everything is swaying up and down, side to side, is rather difficult to say the least.
Eventually we got the door open only to find the corridor swaying back and forth and the only route out – the external concrete stairs – had come away from the wall. and these swayed dangerously as well.
My husband grabbed my arm and frog-marched me to the stairs and forced me to step on to the turbulent structure. I’ve never been inclined towards death-defying rides or thrill seeking, and if I had ever felt a moment of wishful thinking standing holding bags and jackets whilst everyone else terrified themselves silly at Disney or Universal Studios, I was soon cured. This was sufficient for a whole lifetime, believe me.
We made it to the parking lot and found several fellow dwellers standing around, half-naked, like us and shivering with shock in the cold Californian morning air. The ground beneath our feet undulated and the trees and lamp posts bent and dipped as we wondered what to do next.
A car drove past with some security guards shouting from a loud hailer. Something to do with there being an earthquake (you kid me not) and telling everyone not to go back into the buildings because they were not retro-fitted for earthquakes yet! As if we would rush back in when all around us there were buildings crashing down, sirens wailing and gas explosions in the far distance.
We made it to a neighbours car and sat with her whilst we waited out the after-shocks, wondering what had happened to the young band who were staying in another complex. We couldn’t find out until the shaking had ceased and when it had done we decided to risk crawling back into the building to find some clothing. We could hardly wander around Burbank in our PJ’s, and barefooted at that.
To cut a very long story short, we found the band members huddled in their room, terrified and half-naked and loath to venture out.
Having been recording in Santa Monica until 4am we had only just got into bed when the quake happened, exhausted after 36 hours recording and expecting our alarms to go off about 7.30am, so we could get back to the studio for 9am to begin work again. Little did we know that if we’d been on the 10 freeway just half an hour later we might never have made it to bed!
We struggled through debris strewn streets and managed to get to the studio but it had sustained some damage and until it could be checked over, and because our young band were reluctant to venture back there because there’d been some shakes the day before and one was so bad – like a truck hitting the building – it had sent them tearing out of the vocal booth and into the street in terror, the A&R VP suggested we to go to one of the other studios we were also working with – perhaps the one in the Hollywood Hills which might have escaped damage. Without any communication possible due to phones not working we headed off to Laurel Canyon to see if working there would be possible.
After all time is money when making an album and we’d already been at it for weeks with several sets of Producers and studios. Nothing would be allowed to stop work. Not even a big quake. Rock n’ Roll and all that jazz.
Our producer, who had worked with Whitney, Maria and Sting as well as a dozen other major stars, was sitting in his studio almost in tears. His beloved fish tank had emptied its occupants all over the floor and most of them had expired there. His fabulous infinity pool seemed to have emptied on to the house beneath him in the canyon and his many gold and platinum discs were hanging off the walls. The desk seemed in tact and we prayed all our recordings were too, including the mix we had been working on two days before.
He was worried sick about his special microphone which had a fabulous warmth about it and had been used to record vocals for all the major female stars I mentioned before. However, after a good inspection of it we all decided it would be fine.
There wasn’t going to be any recording it was apparent. However, the record company didn’t want us to waste our time and so whilst he stressed and worried we got to work cleaning up the mess all around him, whilst he issued instructions about what went where and how to do it the way he liked, all the time we tried coping with after-shocks and shaking, which seemed never to cease.
We managed to get the album done in the end, most studios only suffered minor damage though everyone was a nervous wreck every time there was another shake, a loud bang or something started to vibrate. We had been through the LA riots, fires, floods and mud-slides not to mention the San Francisco quake and numerous tornadoes out in the Mid-West so we were all used to Mother Nature letting us know who was actually in charge! Well, sort of.
We were lucky to get out alive and when we saw the mess our apartment block was in, not to mention those nearby and the loss of life, not just on the Freeway but in buildings and the streets, we had little to moan about. It was nothing compared with quakes in other distant lands which take years to recover from. We went without electric, water and phones for a while and many lived under canvas for a time. We were lucky; we were able to leave and move elsewhere, the band went back to England and life got back to normal after a fashion.
But whenever there is a quake reported on the News or when someone mentions Northridge, we get terrifying, thrilling shivers down the spine and it all comes vibrating back – bodies quiver and brains tremble at the memory of where we were at 4.31 am on January 17th 1994.
Where were you?
All photos unless otherwise stated (c) Jane Risdon 1994. All rights reserved.
Apologies for the quality of these photos, they were taken using 1994 equipment and developed from film.