Thoughts on the Northridge Earthquake

In 1994 I worked in the marketing department of St. Ives labs in Northridge, California. At 4:31 A.M. on January 17 of that year a 6.7 magnitude earthquake hit the area, causing extensive damage and loss of life. 


My first priority was to make sure that my wife, family members, neighbors and friends were not injured, and that everyone had enough food and water to last a few days. Next, I attended to my home’s most pressing clean-up and repair needs. 


Phones were not working, making communication difficult, so I had no way of knowing what had occurred at my workplace or whether anyone was there or in need of assistance. 


So it was that the next morning I, Curt Vig, and a few other dedicated employees gathered in front of the St. Ives building and surveyed the damage. The exterior seemed intact and structurally sound, but looking through the windows, we could see that the interior was a mess. 


Someone had a key to the building, so we cautiously made our way inside and began to assess the damage. 


It looked like a war zone. Nearly every bookcase and file cabinet in the large building had been knocked down; computers, monitors, printers and copy machines were scattered about, many some distance from their place of origin; chairs were crushed and tables were broken. Hundreds—maybe thousands—of bottles of St. Ives hair and skin care product were strewn all about office and hallway floors. 


What made matters worse was that the quake had shaken loose hundreds of suspended ceiling tiles and activated the automatic fire sprinklers, turning the tiles into gray mud that oozed into the tangled piles of computers, keyboards, and disheveled furniture on the soaked carpeting.


While assessing the damage in the main work area of the building—a large room with dozens of cubicles and a 30-foot ceiling—a 5.5 aftershock struck. 


I and my few fellow employees instinctively backed against the wall, and watched in amazement while metal and tile rained down from what was left of the high suspended ceiling. It was only then that we realized the wall we backed against was made of glass—an interior office window—which swayed with waves emanating from deep within the Earth.


Once safely back outside, we parted ways, and over the next few days contacted as many other fellow employees as possible. 

If memory serves me correctly, it took about a week before all employees returned to work, and several more weeks of us all pitching in to clean-up the building’s interior, repair and purchase new equipment, and finally get back to our normal work routine. 

Because of the generous support of CEO Gary Worth and others in upper management, we were all compensated not only for our clean-up efforts, but also for time taken to deal with real and emotional damage done to our own homes and families. 


The Northridge earthquake was devastating for many. It produced ground acceleration that was the highest ever instrumentally recorded in an urban area in North America, with strong ground motion felt as far away as Las Vegas, Nevada. The death toll was 57, with over 8,700 injured. Property damage was estimated to be as high as $50 billion, making it one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history.


The quake affected my fellow coworkers in different ways. One—a large and fit young man who was a body-builder—was so traumatized that he left for his family’s residence in Hawaii immediately after the quake, and did not return for many weeks. But most of my coworkers carried on with grace and humor, as was their nature. 


Aftershocks from the Northridge earthquake continued to rattle the area for months. One day a large jolt struck while I sat before my computer in my cubicle: a sudden hit, followed by several rocking waves. I looked down from my second-story window at the large gathering of employees who evacuated outside, and smiled. The building had survived the main quake, I thought, so it was likely to survive this aftershock too, so I took it in stride. All was well.