Northridge CA Earthquake Damage, Repairs and Job Site Accident, by Debbie Vardi
January 17, 1994, 20 years ago today I was a commercial property manager in Woodland Hills, CA. Even though we lived only a couple of miles south of the Northridge earthquake’s epicenter, it was my responsibility to immediately check on the condition of the class “A” building I managed including its common areas and tenant spaces. I was not deterred by mismatched sweat clothes and shoes or the black eye and fat lip sustained when I was slammed against the bedroom door jamb as I ran to our young daughters while the house was still shaking.
Driving streets that were deserted except for a black cat lying dead, all four paws sticking straight up to the sky, in the middle of Sherman Way, was doomsday eery. Gidon stayed home with the kids, cleaned up the mess I never saw and stopped the flooding of the garage from the hot water heater that toppled over during the quake. (Lesson learned: Earthquake strapping is now mandatory.)
Of course, the elevators weren’t working at the building so that day I ran up and down the steel staircases more times than I could count. Sleeping on mattresses on our living room floor with the family that night, my legs cramped and stiffened in right angles at my knees so badly, I had to scream. It felt like I imagined pre-mature rigamortis would be.
The scenes I remember most all involve loyal employees and vendors rushing on their own to the building to restore services as quickly as possible. Like the story of the Dutch boy who stuck his finger in a dam to stop a potential flood, there was devoted young Carlos, our janitor, who literally stuck his finger in the fire sprinkler line above the ceiling tiles of a major law office to stop the water flooding the high stacks of case files now strewn from filing cabinet tops and desktops to all over the floor. There were the Air Mechanical, Inc. service technicians who came by (received with grateful hugs), relieved Carlos and repaired the broken fire sprinkler pipes in that office as a favor and then made other repairs throughout the building.
What followed was the tedious bidding process and the year-long construction project to remove and replace exterior facade brick and windows, make repairs in each tenant suite and all the beautiful common areas including courtyards and garage, and I’m sure more than I cannot remember.
We later discovered that a portion of the building had shifted off its foundation. The general contractor who took on the restoration job managed it in stages, on schedule, on budget and with minimum inconvenience to our tenants. We thought we were going to have a happy ending.
But then there was the last day. When finishing touches were being applied to the brick facade of the third-floor landing of the parking structure’s stair tower’s exterior wall a worse tragedy happened. A non-working condition aluminum ladder, so labeled in English and Spanish, was removed by the tile subcontractor’s laborer from the locked storage room.
Evidence showed he then placed the ladder on the floor of the landing leaning it against the guardrail, then climbed it extending his entire body over the guardrail reaching to a distant high spot to place the last tile.
The ladder didn’t hold, the young family man fell over the railing and onto the top of a concrete canopy below. He suffered extensive head injuries. He was transported to the nearest trauma care hospital in critical condition. He succumbed to the injuries and died two days later. Construction Focus Four: Fall Hazards – OSHA
Construction site accidents can and are being reduced through required OSHA Safety Programs. This is not just law, it makes sense because it saves lives and businesses. Google OSHA, Cal OSHA, Construction Safety www.dir.ca.gov or www.oshasafetymanuals.com
Living in California, we all know that there will be another “big one” (never mind that the small quakes are unnerving enough) and odds are within our lifetime. Those are natural events we cannot control but we can prepare to safely and effectively respond. We can make our offices, homes, and cars earthquake safe or ready ahead of time. As individuals, as employers and other cooperative groups of people, we must learn, teach and implement safety measures for during and after an earthquake to reduce hazards, injuries and death. www.redcross.org; www.ready.gov/earthquakes
A property manager, a general contractor, a supervisor, an insurance adjuster, a teacher, an employer, a safety trainer cannot be in all places at all times. Along with all of our other responsibilities, safety training is imperative for everybody in California. And then, when we’ve done all we can to prepare we must admit that 100% of accidents and disasters, especially those that are created due to nature or negligence, cannot be avoided under human conditions.
In my experience, the 1994 Northridge Earthquake brought out the best and the worst in human nature. I’ll always remember both.