The photos have faded, but the memories are still clear.
At 4:31 a.m. there was a rumbling noise -- like a train coming -- and violent shaking that didn’t stop. My wife jumped from bed first and ran toward our 4-year-old daughter’s room.
"Earthquake!" I yelled. We used to live in Tokyo where quakes are common.
I went into the rooms of our two boys, ages 8 and 10. There was no light in the hallway. It was hard to balance, the floor was undulating like waves and there was glass breaking somewhere. The headboard from our bed snapped. It was good we had gotten up.
I couldn’t get into my son Samy's room; somehow the bedroom door had buckled to block entrance and escape. Samy was crying inside. Farid stumbled out of his room. In the darkness he stepped on glass and cried. My wife held our baby girl and found brief safety outside under the sturdy patio. I pushed and pried on Samy’s door so he could squeeze into the hall, just as an aftershock made everyone scream again.
Outside we gathered together. We were five frightened people, but we were together, and we were OK.
Today, in the garage clutter, there’s a storage box labeled “1994 Earthquake Papers.” I saved the Los Angeles Times from Tuesday, January 18. The headline has yellowed. "Disaster Before Dawn 6.6 in the Southland" describes the death and destruction centered near our home in the San Fernando Valley.
Also in the box there are layers of contractor repair estimates, receipts, FEMA and SBA documents. There are flyers for retro-fitting and sheer wall work. More cancelled checks than I care to look at. And there’s a dusty photo album. Many of the snapshots have faded to white but the memory for me and my family is vivid.
Our son Farid remembers searching for Reese, the golden retriever puppy. Our first dog had come home that weekend and was in the garage because he wasn’t house trained yet. By flashlight we saw the garage door was gone, shelves were down, paint cans had burst and the puppy must have run away.
Then... a whimper! Reese was stuck but safe under debris. He was shivering and splashed with paint.
The puppy learned fast. He sensed the aftershocks first and would get wild to alarm us. He loved that we all slept in a tent and when Maya became flush with a fever we all learned why goldens are known as comfort dogs.
Later that morning an aftershock kicked off car alarms, the only sound amid the silence. No sirens, no TV, just darkness -- and fear. The first person to come was a neighbor; he was an electrician and knew the danger of gas leaks. He shut off our gas valve and checked dangling wires.
As the sun came up my wife went on "mom autopilot." She insisted we eat breakfast (dry cereal and fruit). And more neighbors came by. We really got to know our neighbors then; people share and help each other in times of need.
Everyone on our block had the same mess; in the kitchen, broken dishes and cupboards emptied onto the floor; water from the broken pipes and the pool was all over floors and carpets. Doors, windows and walls all had spider cracks, some big enough to see daylight. Brick chimneys and tile roofs had all fallen. Cinderblock walls that once separated homes collapsed.
By 9:00 a.m. my family was safe and my “I’ve got to get to work” instinct kicked in. I had covered earthquakes in Turkey, Taiwan and Japan and knew this was a huge story.
The newsroom was in was in full crisis mode, a beehive of activity, buzzing like every other major story. Satellite phones were on; generators gave us power, reinforcements were coming, more camera crews and producers from the East Coast. Even Tom Brokaw was chartering in.
But I soon learned this story was different. My family had been affected, and I was no longer just an observer. In the office I suddenly felt alone. I had to shut the door and have a good cry.
Then I got back to work.
Lessons learned: We keep a fully stocked disaster kit at home, another in the car. Flashlights and batteries in each room, and nothing heavy gets placed on a high shelf.
The new golden retriever, named Goose, has a microchip embedded under his skin, just in case he can’t find his way back home.
“If” there’s a big one, which in California really means “when” there’s a big one, we try to be prepared.