Northridge remembered: How quake left hospitals in the dark
The giant shaking hit at 4:31 a.m. on Jan. 17, 1994, jolting awake millions of residents across the Los Angeles Basin.
In Los Angeles’ Fairfax District, we scrambled outside to the dark streets in pajamas and bare feet, terrified, staring at the blinding arc flashes on overhead power lines as sirens began howling far away.
We were lucky. The Northridge quake killed 60 people, injured more than 7,000 and crippled hospitals throughout the Los Angeles area, blackening emergency rooms and shutting down ventilators and other live-saving equipment.
The shaking damaged some medical centers so badly that 600 to 700 patients were evacuated via helicopters and MTA buses.
That was more than 19 years ago, and even those of us who covered the Northridge quake have forgotten many of the white-knuckle details.
I was reminded of that pre-dawn shaking recently while reporting on failed federal efforts to collect earthquake safety information from 200 hospitals across Southern California.
As it turned out, an estimated 40 to 50 percent of those hospitals balked at filling out the 2011 survey, quashing a FEMA-approved program meant to improve planning for the next big quake.
They included some hospitals damaged in the Northridge disaster. Kaiser Permanente, whose Granada Hills clinic collapsed in the quake, did not participate.
Neither did Los Angeles County Olive View Medical Center in Sylmar, Susan Abram reported last month in the Los Angeles Daily News.
Not only did a major 1971 earthquake shut down Olive View, but the Northridge quake forced the evacuation of its patients from the replacement 377-bed facility “because of serious water damage, gas leaks and power outages,” the Los Angeles Times reported the next day.
The survey was designed to help federal agencies rush water and back-up generators to their hospital after a major earthquake.
Why are those generators critical? Here are accounts by two people who were inside hospitals in Los Angeles at 4:31 a.m. when the Northridge quake hit.
Medical writer Irene M. Wielawski, a former colleague of mine at the Times, was with her sick 10-year-old son at St. John’s Medical Center in Santa Monica when the jolting began.
“The backup generators at St. John’s failed. The only light in our building (one of the older ones, later condemned) came from nurses’ flashlights and battery-powered exit lights and readouts on IV units,” Wielawski, now an independent journalist based in New York, wrote me last weekend.
Her account of what happened at St. John’s, published in the Times the next day, was headlined, “Disaster Before Dawn: 'My Only Thought Was to Get Andrew Out of There.’”
It’s one of the most chilling accounts of medical chaos that I’ve ever read:
One wall of the room had splintered under the wallpaper. Outside our third-story window, an inch-wide fissure had opened in the exterior stucco. The building continued to jiggle ominously after the main quake passed, all of this in total darkness and accompanied by the alarms of battery-powered medical apparatus sounding through the hospital corridor.
Nearby, the lights also went out at the former Santa Monica Medical Center, now UCLA Medical Center Santa Monica – which, by the way, did return the 2011 survey.
Registered nurse Kathy Carder was working in the intensive care unit that morning when the power failed, shutting down patient ventilators and turning monitor screens black. When I interviewed her for a 2011 article, she described clenching a flashlight between her teeth as she “bagged” a patient, using her hands to squeeze a bag and pump air in and out of the lungs.
That patient lived. Lionel Ventura, 20, critically injured in a car accident, wasn’t so fortunate. He died at Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills, after the earthquake shut off the power and his ventilator stopped working.