The Most Terrifying Day of My Life: Remembering the 1987 Whittier Earthquake

This morning my 8-year-old daughter, with plans for her monthly allowance on her mind said, “It’s October 1st!” I said, ‘No it’s not.” (It can’t be.  It’s still 100 degrees and school barely started, right?) When she insisted, I remembered that yesterday was September 30th and after debating whether September had 31 days or not, and deciding on “not,” I looked at my phone to make forsureforsureforsure it was October 1st (I’m still a little sleep deprived after having the baby).  When I saw that it was, indeed, October 1st, I felt a little chill.  You know, that little creepy feeling you get when something is just…wrong.  I have had that feeling every October 1st for the past 28 years. I have it now as I am typing this.  And it amazes me that memories can trigger actual physical sensations in our bodies almost three decades after the fact.

This is me in September of 1987.  I had just turned 7 and was totally adorable (obviously!).  I had very little to fear in my life except for the goose I was convinced would bite my butt if I slept too close to the gap between my bed and the wall (and no, we did not have geese in our 3rd floor apartment in the city of Whittier, CA).  But that all changed on the morning of October 1st of that year (the fear, not the geese).

I was sitting across from my dad at the little round table by the window in our tiny little “kitchenette” eating cereal for breakfast that morning.  I remember that it was just a little before I was supposed to walk to school that morning.  I heard a deafening BOOM! that I thought could only be a cannon, followed by a loud and violent shaking.  I looked through the long, skinny kitchen to my mom standing in the hallway on the opposite end.  I got up to run to her, but I could barely see her in her blue and white striped nightgown through the blur of dishes flying out of the ceiling-high cupboards on both sides.  As they shattered at my feet, I changed course and started to run through the living room to get to her.  I vividly remember the panic and the indecision.  I didn’t know how to get to her, and I don’t remember why exactly I wanted to get to her, I just remember that I was desperate to try.  According to my mom, she had been screaming incessantly, which was probably part of the reason I was so panicked and determined to reach her.

At this point my memory gets fuzzy.  I know that as I tried to run through the living room to get to my mom, a 6-foot tall bookcase started to fall.  My mom remembers that my dad caught the bookcase, at least long enough to keep me from getting smashed, but I remember that he grabbed me by my waist and yanked me back into the dining room just in time before the bookcase came crashing down.  Maybe it was both. Either way, he’s a hero for saving me and the bookcase did fall at some point because I remember later on having to climb over and around the fallen bookcase and all the books and blue three-ring binders that were strewn all over the floor, just to get around in the living room.

After that all I have in my mind are disjointed scenes from that time of my life: hiding with my dad under the table (during the main quake?  During an aftershock?), rolling aftershocks while my entire family huddled in a door jamb, sometimes getting our fingers pinched by swinging doors (no longer advised, by the way), feeling off-balance during aftershocks outside while the whole neighborhood gathered out in the open, away from anything that could fall on us, and people superstitiously speculating about the warm “earthquake weather,” the predictive behavior of animals leading up to the quake, and when the inevitable “big one” would hit.  I remember that we couldn’t open the pantry door because all of the food had fallen onto the floor blocking the way. My mom remembers that we ended up throwing it all away because jars of fruit were busted open and shards of glass tore open bags of wheat.

I didn’t go to school that day, but when I did go back and things started to go “back to normal” I had friends who wouldn’t come to girl scout meetings at my house because they were afraid of being in a three-story apartment building.  I was afraid too, but my mom told me that we were even safer in our apartment than if we had been in a single-story house because the foundation of the house was as big as an entire basement filled with concrete.  Most likely a lie, but it helped a little.  Turns out we were safe.  Mostly because of modern building codes in effect before our building was built.

Screen shot 2013-10-03 at 10.46.23 AMFor a long time after the earthquake there was rubble and scaffolding all over Uptown Whittier.



I remember parking structures with wires and twisted rebar and chunks of concrete hanging all over the place. In fact, the brick building where I had taken ballet classes when I was 4 years old had partially collapsed.  It was incredibly unsettling to see a section of a place that I had been in multiple times literally crumbled to the ground so that you could see inside of it.



Unfortunately, many Uptown Whittier buildings were made of bricks back in the 1920’s or 1930’s before updated building codes.

I was paranoid for months or years after the earthquake.  I remember having a lot of anxiety about there being another earthquake.  We moved all breakable dishes to lower cupboards and put plastic up high.  We put rubber bands around the knobs of closet double doors to keep them from flying open in the event of another earthquake.  I started to have real trouble sleeping at night, but imaginings of geese were long gone.  Now I kept shoes under my bed to put on in case we had to flee over broken glass in the middle of the night.  Which at that point in my life, actually became a valid possibility. Now that I think about it, 28 years and zero large earthquakes later, I still have a pair of old sneakers under my bed for just such a reason.

It changes you when you start to learn that there are real things to fear in the world.  Not monsters and not geese under the bed, but terrible things that can actually happen to you at any moment.  I honestly don’t know if I ever really felt safe again for years.  I think that anxiety even extended to other possible horrors.  I would imagine “bad mens” trying to rob us in our home and would ask in my evening prayers that if they came they wouldn’t “bring their guns.” I guess I had reached a point where I still had faith that the Lord could help me in a crisis, but now I knew that bad things could and would happen, and I suppose I thought asking for “bad mens” not to come at all would be asking too much.

I looked it up last year on October 1st and found out that the main large earthquake only lasted 30 seconds (although there were more than a dozen medium and small aftershocks) but it has affected me and many others for a lifetime.


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