The First 15 Minutes by Ryan Deto LA Weekly Photos from the week of November 24, 2011
"I think there will be looting and rioting right after it happens," Gooday predicts.
With streets in the Spring Street area filled with rubble and crushed cars, and no way to call for aid, word spreads among those trying to help victims: The California Hospital Medical Center, the only hospital in downtown proper (White Memorial Medical Center is in Boyle Heights, across the L.A. River, and County USC Medical Center is three and half miles away), is 12 blocks away, close enough to go for help.
Little do they know that California Hospital Medical Center is ground zero for its own disaster. Figueroa Street, Pico Boulevard and Grand Avenue near the hospital are at a standstill, with some 20,000 fans converging on the area for a 7:30 p.m. Katy Perry concert at Staples Center when the quake hits. That panicked mass has merged with thousands of people fleeing the Convention Center next door, where they were attending the L.A. Auto Show. A short distance from the disorder, one old hospital tower in the CHMC complex, a group of concrete structures faced with red brick and constructed between 1964 and 1987, is now mostly a pile of burgundy rubble.
Some patients, doctors, nurses and other staff are crushed or trapped under the rubble.
In 2010, the 316-bed hospital owned by Catholic Healthcare West was advised by the California Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development (Cal-OSHPD) to perform seismic retrofits of the 1964 tower that houses dozens of patients. But David Jarrett, Catholic Healthcare West director of construction, said in a letter to Cal-OSHPD that the hospital could not comply because of financial constraints due to the recession. Catholic Healthcare West spokeswoman Tricia Griffin tells the Weekly that the tower retrofit will begin next summer, with completion expected in 2015.
According to an OSHPD 2010 report, 78 other medical facilities in Los Angeles County lack retrofitting. Some may be unable to help anyone but themselves.
Back at the Alexandria on Fifth and Spring, an off-duty paramedic who has responded on-scene is shouting that California Hospital Medical Center is in trouble, and the next closest is Good Samaritan — just outside downtown in the Pico-Union District.
The paramedic isn't sure how well Good Samaritan fared, but luckily the hospital is fine, having completed all structural retrofits sought by Cal-OSHPD. Gooday decides to stay indoors, believing it's safer in the badly damaged, 100-year-old hotel than in much of downtown.
7:08 p.m., eight minutes after the quake:
In Los Angeles County's southern suburbs, a family screams, "Our house is on fire!" as fire engines zoom past, their sirens fading to silence. The simple truth is, the L.A. County Fire Department and municipal fire agencies have more important places to be.
Brett and Renee Asolas, volunteer Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) members in Norwalk, tell hysterical neighbors that the fire trucks are needed where lives are in imminent danger, like from disasters involving boxy "dingbat" apartments.
Some so-called dingbats — a classic California 1950s style with overhanging rental units built above open-air parking — have tilted or fallen, crushing cars and trapping residents.
At first, Southern Californians, regardless of education or intelligence levels, will have trouble understanding how the fire trucks can rush past their blazes. Many disaster victims go through a process called the "illusion of centrality," believing it is only happening to them.
"When you're in trauma, the mind says this is a very local problem," Elia Zedeño, who survived the 1993 bombing at Lower Manhattan's World Trade Center, says in her book The Unthinkable. "[The mind] can't afford to say that everything outside is horrible," too.
The USGS conservatively estimates that 1,600 fires will spread to 130,000 individual buildings — a checkerboard-like conflagration unseen since much of San Francisco burned to the ground as a result of the 1906 earthquake.
Fires will blaze in the Inland Empire, San Fernando Valley, San Gabriel Valley, Santa Monica and Los Angeles. But the worst hit will be southeast L.A. County, according to Kyoto University professor Charles R. Scawthorn's fire study in the ShakeOut Scenario. It singles out for the worst blazes the sector south of the 10 freeway and east of the 110 freeway, including Downey, Compton, Bell, South Gate, Watts, Huntington Park, Whittier, Montebello, Bellflower, Lynwood, Pico Rivera, Commerce, Paramount, South-Central and Central-Alameda.
Many of their wood-constructed homes and apartments are densely packed on small, post–World War II lots that housed returning soldiers and their families. Fires will spread with ease, and many areas will burn freely.
Unthinkably, "if the Santa Ana winds are blowing," as they often do in late autumn, says L.A. County Fire Department battalion chief Larry Collins, "all bets are off."
In the first 10 minutes after the quake, falling lamps and candles set furniture ablaze, while sparks from electrical shorts touch off natural gas spewing from snapped-off lines that fed heaters or stoves.
Blazes in Greater Los Angeles will overwhelm local police and fire departments. Even mutual-aid forces from elsewhere, who won't arrive immediately, will put only a dent in the relief effort, according to Collins.
To be able to help, Brett and Renee Asolas have been trained to adopt a mind-set that may sound strange: "I am No. 1," Renee explains. "I am the most important person because only when I am safe can I help others. I think of me first, then family, then friends, then neighbors, then strangers."
"You have to imagine the unimaginable," Brett says. "It's like you are hardening your heart, but that is what you have to do."
In the first seven or eight minutes, the Asolases grab flashlights and follow procedure. Brett smells a gas leak and runs to the shutoff valve while Renee hurries over to the circuit breaker to turn off each circuit one by one to avoid an overload if the power comes back on.
Renee pulls out the couple's prearranged supply of bottled water, canned beans, power bars and other nonperishables. If he can get through, Brett will call a friend in New Mexico to inform him that he and Renee are OK. He's their designated "distant friend."
Renee grabs a bag of CERT vests and hard hats, flashlights, walkie-talkies, and a hand-crank radio — a crucial Red Cross device with a cellphone charger and LED flashlight. She turns on one of two official emergency radio stations, KNX 1070. Both flip on their walkie-talkies, giving them direct communication with Norwalk first responders. Renee grabs some white paper and markers, too.
As they hurry to nearby Zimmerman Park, where they will act as information experts for their neighborhood, Brett spots a fire and tries his walkie-talkie, but the channel is jammed.
He sees why: The dark sky is filled with pale towers of gray smoke, and to the southwest an eerily illuminated, giant stack of onyx smoke climbs to the atmosphere.
A refinery near the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles has caught fire, a scenario cited in Scawthorn's fire chapter in the ShakeOut study. Sloshing gasoline and oil caused a leak in the seal of a big tank, and friction from a loose metal device created a spark. A chain reaction has erupted.
7:10 p.m., 10 minutes after the quake
At Zimmerman Park, the Asolases run to the baseball bleachers, where Renee scrawls "Information Booth" on her paper and posts it on the chain-link fence. During disasters, local parks will act as communication stations.
"Go home if your house is safe," Renee tells a group of rattled residents. "If you want to leave a message for someone, you can post it on the fence."
One middle-aged woman writes, "Jason, meet us at the fire station, love Mom."
Renee tells her she should include her last name and the location and number of the fire station.
Over the hours, the chain-link fence will become thickly covered with paper. Most notes will be practical announcements to family members, letting them know they are safe. Some are exclamations about surviving "the Big One!" A somber few are tributes to fallen loved ones.
Brett and Renee Asolas provide help where they can, to anyone who asks.
7:15 p.m., 15 minutes after the quake
In the Inland Empire, one man has long been ready. After all, he lives and works just yards from the fault itself. "If an earthquake happened, people here would not panic," says Anthony Perez, who runs the Victory Outreach Christian rehab center in Cajon Pass, which links the Mojave Desert to urban Southern California at the western edge of San Bernardino County. "We do not fear death."
Yet death might come. The small camp of bungalows rests perilously atop the invisible San Andreas. Nearby, miles of power lines, fiber-optic cables, gas pipelines, train tracks and highways snake through the economically vital, narrow corridor that is Cajon Pass.
During the growth of the 20th century, Los Angeles and the Inland Empire were in constant need of more resources, water and power. Because of multiple mountain ranges to the north and east, aqueducts, power lines and train tracks are squeezed through slim canyons and must traverse earthquake faults.
Cajon Pass is just a gash in the Earth's surface caused by shifts along the San Andreas Fault. Another huge set of shifts could dramatically alter it.
Some half-dozen areas like the Cajon Pass surround Greater Los Angeles. Information compiled by the USGS shows that, in the event of a giant earthquake on the San Andreas, six railroads, nine highways, 12 gas pipelines, nine fiber-optic cables, 19 aqueducts and 29 power-transmission towers will be "offset" — by an average of 20 feet. Almost all will snap, collapse or otherwise break. Some aqueducts have a fail-safe system, but most don't.
The region has just been cut off from basics it will need to survive.
Anthony Perez and his 33 rehab patients grasp hands and pray inside the camp's "sanctuary," which is nothing more than a folding table and an old wood stove in an empty room. Framed paintings of Jesus Christ lay smashed on the floor, littering the hardwood with glass. The building has shifted on its stone foundation.
Perez, a large man from Pomona, leads the prayer, his black hair falling over his eyes. Despite the unearthly sounds and bright explosions in the night sky from felled power lines and what he suspects is a train derailment, he remains exceptionally calm
"I would feel safe with God's protection," he says simply.
His 39 years have been filled with trauma and tragedy. A former meth addict, he's been struck by cars four times; his body is marked by stab wounds and bullet scars, and he has a metal plate in his back.
The clients at the rehab center include 24 adult men and nine adult women. Because their bungalows are small and light, the buildings badly swayed but didn't fall. Some will fall in the first aftershock.
He can't stay put, so Perez runs out and tells everyone, "Stay calm."
Thanks to Perez's smart precautions, patients at Victory Outreach don't hang things on walls, and all the furniture is bolted down. But now it's time to evacuate. The longer it takes, the less likely their lives will be spared.
"All right guys, let's load up into the van," Perez orders.
Not far away, wooden crosses holding up telephone and power lines have plummeted into the sagebrush, crackling loudly.
"Smoke!" yells a young patient as the smell reaches them.
Then they hear a massive, deep whoomp. Perez's heart rate climbs. Cajon Pass is a notorious tinderbox. With 15 to 20 mph winds sweeping north through the canyon daily, a fire can reach them in minutes.
7:18 p.m., 18 minutes after the quake:
A mile away, a giant globe of fire illuminates the night sky, setting shrubs aflame and carving an otherworldly crater into a hillside. The blazing orb is created by one of hundreds of bizarre chain reactions set off by the Big One.
As envisioned by earthquake engineer Porter, a landslide in the San Gabriel Valley Mountain foothills has toppled an 80-foot transmission tower and also snapped a gas line. Because the gas line is copper — a fantastic conductor — an electric arc forms, fed by the energy from the fallen lines. Despite an emergency shutoff valve, enough gas escaped to create an explosion that blasts away part of the hill.
Perez's rehab patients hurriedly begin to pile into the center's big van, youngest and oldest first. "If not everyone could fit into the van," Perez says, "then we might have to make two trips."
But with fire visible over the hill, there's no coming back. There are only seats for 12, but all 33 patients squeeze on top of and next to each other, creating a tense, uncomfortable crush.
The dirt road to Victory Outreach was a slow-go before, but now the slip in the fault has moved the road 10 feet. Perez drives off the shoulder and over bushes, and when he reaches the 15 freeway he finds traffic at a standstill and fire heading their way. The earthquake has shattered the freeway's surface.
Similar ruptures will strike rural areas of the 5, 10 and 14 freeways, according to the ShakeOut report.
No one can leave the undulated destruction, but more importantly, many cannot get through by ground to help.
Nothing in this hypothetical tale will occur exactly this way. But big, old buildings will be destroyed in downtown Los Angeles; conflagrations will ignite in older, densely built suburbs; tens of thousands will be stranded or hurt on broken roadways; and power, water and phones will be cut off.
Kate Long, the governor's specialist, asks, "What can we do to try to get over people's denial of disaster?"
California is one of the most prepared places in the world. Almost 9 million people participated in the Oct. 20 Great California ShakeOut, the largest in history.
But the chilling fact remains that only 40 percent of residents bother to keep even the recommended three gallons of water on hand — a cheap, simple and profoundly important thing.
Long offers this statistic: More than 90 percent of rescues during U.S. natural disasters are undertaken by ordinary civilians. "The expectation that people are going to be made whole by rescuers," she says, "it's just not true."