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LAFD firefighters recall rescues on Northridge earthquake anniversary

Firefighters describe their actions 30 years ago during the earthquake that claimed 72 lives

A firefighter is removed after being buried in rubble during an earthquake drill at the LAFD Fire Station 88 Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024. On the 30th anniversary of the Northridge earthquake the LA City Fire department held a drill and press conference to demonstrate some of the technology updates the department has made since the 1994 earthquake.

Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG

By Clara Harter
Los Angeles Daily News

LOS ANGELES — Retired firefighter Tony Zar remembers vividly remembers the moment when, after a seven-hour rescue mission, survivor Salvador Pena was finally freed from 20 tons of rubble at the Northridge Fashion Center.

The 6.7 magnitude Northridge earthquake had shattered the center’s parking structure, leaving Pena, a janitor, trapped in the power sweeper he was operating with both of his legs crushed by concrete.

“When we finally got Salvador Pena free and up to the top where he was airlifted to the hospital that was just an incredible sight,” said Zar, on Wednesday, Jan. 17 . “His family was there and seeing a smile on their faces when we finally came out of the hole, it was like ‘wow, we really did something good here’.”

Pena’s rescue was one of hundreds that LAFD firefighters performed in the aftermath of the massive earthquake, which struck the San Fernando Valley at 4:31 a.m. on Jan. 17, 1994, and took 57 lives — a number that grew to 72 after those who died of heart attacks were included.

Thirty years later, the firefighters recall the sights, smells and sounds like it was yesterday. They shared memories at a press conference at Fire Station 88 in Sherman Oaks on the 30th anniversary of the Northridge earthquake.

“One of the things that hit me the most was just how pitch black it was. Not only did we not have any power in the station, but there was no power in the streets, no lights,” said retired firefighter Mike Henry. “There was a cloud of dust (from the debris) that rose up probably tens of feet high and added another level of darkness.”

Firefighters faced huge challenges in responding to the quake — no phone service, no electricity, weak city infrastructure, limited rescue equipment and poor public knowledge on best safety practices during and after an earthquake.

Henry was sleeping in Fire Station 7 in Panorama City when the massive quake rattled his bed and woke him up. He jumped into action with no idea where the damage was worse and whether his family in the Simi Valley had survived. It took 21 hours until he could quickly chat with his wife over the phone.

Fortunately, a great deal of progress in training and technology has been made since then and LAFD Fire Chief Kristin Crowley says the department is much better equipped to respond to the next “big one.”

“Over the past 30 years, we have worked to improve our emergency response system, building codes and public safety infrastructure,” she said at a press conference on Wednesday. “We have learned from the past to predict the future.”

“We want to take the time to remember those who were lost and the families that were forever changed by this tragedy,” she continued. “We honor their memories by reinforcing our commitment to preparedness, safety and community resilience.”

Since Northridge, the department has worked hard to educate the public on how to prepare for and stay safe during a major earthquake, she said. It has also trained many civilians to assist first responders in the event of a major disaster through its Community Emergency Response Team program.

In addition, the department has a vast range of new search and rescue techniques and technologies, informed in no small part by the challenges first responders faced in the quake’s aftermath.

“We were just at the inception of the urban search and rescue concept in 1994, the program was very much at its infancy,” said LAFD Captain Dustin Clark. “Today, 30 years later, our task force is strategically placed throughout the city and is training at a level that is some of the best in the nation.”

Mike Henry was one of the firefighters who performed search and rescue to extricate survivors from the collapsed Northridge Meadows apartment complex where 16 residents perished — the highest death toll at any structure.

He remembers arriving on scene in the early hours of the morning and finding a college-aged boy trapped between metal filing cabinets and a collapsed roof.

“It was so early that we had no other resources on scene and no ambulance,” he said. “We took an axe and removed the door and we used that as a backboard to slide him onto and passed him out of the bedroom window to the firemen that were outside. That rescue was a big, big high point.”

Performing rescues at the complex was gratifying, yet terrifying as there were multiple aftershocks and first responders didn’t know if more sections of the building would collapse.

With the LAFD stretched incredibly thin, the rescue team relied on the help of volunteers to walk around the perimeter of the building listening for sounds from survivors trapped within.

Today, the department has specialized drills with 360-degree cameras that allow firefighters to see inside collapsed structures and locate victims. The department also has powerful concrete drills that can be operated from a crane and used to slice open cars, trains and buildings where people are trapped.

Over the past three decades the department has made major investments in its search and rescue technology.

But while the role of technology is important, it is thanks to the bravery of firefighters that so many people were rescued in 1994 and have been rescued from countless disasters in the last thirty years.

“The Northridge earthquake is not just a moment of trial. It was a defining moment of triumph over adversity,” said Chief Rowley. “Thank you to everyone who has played a part in the city’s recovery and to those who have continued to work towards making Los Angeles safer, more resilient place to live.”

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