Monday, November 18, 2013

Remembering the 1994 Northridge Earthquake

Shortly after 4 AM, on January 17, 1994, I was working a one-man traffic unit for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, assigned to the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station. Santa Clarita is the city immediately north of Los Angeles, geographically one of the largest cities in the world. The area of Los Angeles known as the San Fernando Valley (population: 1.7 million) and the Santa Clarita Valley to the north (population: just under 200,000) are divided by the Santa Susana Mountains—a chain of low mountains running east to west.

I received a call to assist other units on a domestic violence call in Castaic, a community about 10 miles north of the City of Santa Clarita. The call indicated that a distraught woman was threatening her boyfriend with a shotgun. Several units arrived on scene. The call was handled to completion, without incident. The other deputies and I made our way to our patrol cars. I got into my car and turned on the ignition.

I noticed something very strange. It was not yet dawn, but flocks of birds were flying from the trees. It was as if something had frightened them. It was now 4:30 AM.

Suddenly, my car began to bounce backward and up onto the sidewalk. At first I thought I had inadvertently put the car in reverse instead of drive, blaming it on fatigue. But when I looked at my dashboard, I was stunned to see my car was still in park. I wasn’t moving my car. Something else was. Earthquake!

All of us quickly exited our patrol cars and met in the middle of the street. We could tell by the length and force of the shaking that this was a bad earthquake and that it was close. It was much closer than any of us realized.

We looked southward and saw an eerie, blue haze, which revealed the silhouette of the Santa Susana Mountains. What we were looking at was the glow from electrical transformers exploding in the San Fernando Valley, on the south side of the mountains.

Once the ground stopped shaking (it felt much longer than the 30-40 seconds the quake lasted), and once we regained our bearings, we jumped into our cars and headed back to our reporting districts in the city. Our first responsibility was to check what were known as the critical facilities in our area (i.e. chemical plants, dams, power plants, etc.). I was first to enter the southbound 5 Freeway. I quickly found myself traveling at a high rate of speed.

Moments after entering the freeway, I hit the first small break in the freeway. Fortunately for me and those following behind me, the break in the freeway was only about a foot in height, and the front side of the break was lower, not higher than the first break I hit. Had it been the other way around, I would have torn the front axle and wheels off my car. As it was, when I hit the break in the freeway, my car took to the air, landing several feet ahead. I got on my radio to warn the other deputies that the freeway is damaged and we have no idea what the conditions are in front of us.

We got off the freeway at the next exit to avoid finding larger breaks in the freeway…the hard way. As we exited the freeway, we received a call on the radio that warehouse workers in a large department store were trapped in the warehouse. Some of us made our way to the department store; while others went on to handle other calls. The dispatchers updated us continually as preliminary damage reports began to slowly roll in.

It took us a little while to dig the warehouse workers out of the fallen 10-20 foot tall, free-standing metal shelves that had been toppled like dominos. By God’s grace, no one was seriously injured. Seeing the injured made me and the other deputies think, almost simultaneously, about our own families. Were they okay? How badly damaged are our homes?

With no immediate, emergent calls pending, and with my home only a few miles from the department store, I raced home. As I pulled down my street, a very good friend and fellow deputy sheriff, Steve Cooley (Steve is now retired and serving as an associate pastor in a church in Massachusetts), came into view of my headlights. At the time of the earthquake, he was off-duty and at home. His first thought, knowing I was on-duty, was to think of my family. He rushed over to my home and discovered that Mahria, then pregnant with our third daughter, and our other two girls were trapped in our home.

The electricity was out. Debris was strewn about in the darkness. And the force of the earthquake had so moved the framing around the front door that Mahria could not get it open. She could see the shadows of people moving outside. She called for help, but no one answered. Then a flashlight shined through our sliding glass door. Mahria called out and heard Steve’s voice. Mahria was able to make her way to the front door. Together, she and Steve were able to force the front door open.

As I got out of my patrol car, Steve said (and I will never forget these words as long as I live), “Don’t worry. Mahria is hurt.” The force of the earthquake threw Mahria out of bed. Somewhere along the way, Mahria does not know how to this day, something hit her in the corner of her eye, opening a small gash. Right about then, Mahria, with blood running down the side of her face, and the girls appeared out of the shadows.

Then the call no one wanted to hear came over the radio. The call came out as an “officer down.”

An LAPD motorcycle officer by the name of Clarence Wayne Dean, a 26-year veteran of the force, was riding his police motorcycle southbound on the 14 Freeway. Tragically, unknown to Officer Dean, the 14 Freeway had collapsed in the area of the 5/14 split. Unable to see the collapsed freeway ahead of him, Officer Dean plunged more than 50’ to his death.

I kissed Mahria and told her I had to answer the call. Steve drove Mahria and the girls to the sheriff’s stations where other deputy families were beginning to gather.

I drove to the nearby southbound 5 Freeway onramp. I made my way around the hundreds of cars and trucks stopped on the freeway, and into the emergency lane. I traveled about a mile when I came up to the front of the lines of stopped vehicles; ahead of me was open-empty freeway.

Suddenly, a California Highway Patrol Sergeant jumped into the emergency lane in front of me, frantically waving his hands in the air. I heard him yell, “Stop!”

At first I was angry. There was an officer down (at the time I assumed he was dead, but did not know for sure). Whether he was alive or dead, I was going to get to him. And this sergeant was literally standing in my way. I yelled, “There’s an LAPD motor officer down!”

The sergeant yelled back, “And if you keep going, you will be down, too!”

The sergeant had information I didn’t. Not only was the 14 Freeway down, but the 5 Freeway was down, too. Had the sergeant not stopped me, I would have likely driven off the freeway, falling 50-100’ to my certain death. After I caught my breath, I thanked the sergeant for quite literally saving my life. I turned my car around and slowly drove back into the city.

Had I not turned around, I would have perished. The only difference between me and Officer Dean that fateful January morning was that there was someone to stand in front of me and warn me that danger and death lied in front of me.

Had I not turned around, I would have perished.

Here’s some information about the earthquake:
  • 6.7 magnitude earthquake; felt strongly as far away as Las Vegas, Nevada, almost 300 miles away.
  • Through December 31, 1994, 11,030 aftershocks, most of which were too small to feel, were recorded by the Southern California Seismic Network
  • More than 400 aftershocks have been large enough to feel
  • The force of the earthquake lifted the San Fernando Valley 16-20”
  • 57 people were killed; more than 8,700 were injured
  • And estimated 20 billion dollars in damage.
As the California Highway Patrol sergeant warned me 20 years ago to turn around, Jesus often warned people to turn. He used the word “repent.”
"There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, 'Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish'" (Luke 13:1-5).
Jesus Christ is Lord. He is the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. He was with the Father in and at Creation. All things--all things—were created by Him, and through Him, and for Him. Nothing has ever been made that was not made by Jesus Christ. He is the sinless Lamb of God who came to take away the sins of the world. He is also the Lion of the Tribe of Judah who will judge both the living and the dead. He is King of kings and Lord of Lords. He is sovereign over all things. He owns every person, just as He owns the cattle on a thousand hills, and it matters not if, at present, the person is in wanton rebellion against Jesus Christ or one of His born-again, beloved children. Jesus owns it all. Jesus owns us all. God is. God is one. God is Three in One—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—One God in Three Persons—the Triune One—the Trinity—God. And this God, for there is only one God, is the God before whom every person will one-day stand to give an account for their lives. Because God alone is truly and perfectly good, He will judge each person according to the perfect moral standard He has written on every human heart.

Everyone knows it is a sin to lie because they know God is Truth. Everyone knows it is wrong to harbor bitterness, resentment, and hatred in their heart toward another person because they know God is love.

Everyone knows it is wrong to fornicate (to engage sexually with a man or a woman outside the bonds of marriage between one man and one woman; they know it is wrong to look and think with lust; they know it is wrong to commit adultery; they know it is wrong to engage in homosexuality, lesbianism, or any other form of sexual depravity because they know God is Faithful.

Everyone knows it is wrong to take the name of the Lord their God in vain, to bring his name down low and use it as an adjectival term of excitement, anger, sorrow, or fear, because they know God is Holy.

For the above reasons, and others, everyone who stands before God to give an account will do so without excuse. No one will be able to claim innocence or ignorance of violating God’s law--whether in thought, word, or deed. Because God is good, because He is holy, righteous and just, He must punish sin. The punishment God has ascribed for sin, all sin, is eternity in Hell. It matters not whether you, the reader, believe this. What matters is that it is true. Truth is not determined by what one believes. God is truth, though every person is found to be a liar. Truth is that which comports to reality, and any attempt to live life apart from the reality of God is to live a life of chaos, absurdity, arrogant denial, and sin.

This same God--again, for there is only one God--who is angry with the wicked every day, whose wrath abides upon the ungodly, who will judge the world in righteousness, is the same God who is loving, merciful, gracious, and kind. And He showed His great love for mankind when He sent His Son to earth in the Person of Jesus Christ—fully God and fully Man, yet without sin.

Jesus of Nazareth, born of a virgin just as the prophet Isaiah declared more than 700 years before Jesus’s literal, physical birth, lived the perfect, sinless life you cannot live. For some 33 years, Jesus lived a life in perfect obedience to the law of God--in thought, word, and deed--a life you and I could not hope to live for a mere 33 seconds. And then He voluntarily went to the cross.

Yes, it was the Jewish people who hatefully and viciously demanded Jesus’s execution. Yes, it was the Roman government that carried out the despicable act. But they were all merely instruments in the hands of another. For it pleased God the Father to crush God the Son under the full weight and fury of His wrath against sin. God the Father made God the Son, who knew no sin, to become sin on behalf of those who repent and believe the gospel so that through the sacrifice of His Son many would be made righteous in the eyes of Almighty God. In other words, on that great and terrible day God the Father looked upon God the Son as if He had lived the depraved life of a sinner and in exchange--a great exchange--God the Father looks upon those whom He has caused to be born again, to repent and believe the gospel, as if they had lived His Son’s perfect, precious, and priceless life.

Jesus shed His innocent blood on the cross. He died a literal, physical death on the cross. And He was buried in a tomb not His own. Three days later, Jesus forever defeated sin and death when He physically, bodily rose from the grave. And unlike every false god created in the imaginations of men--whether the false gods of Islam, Catholicism, Mormonism, Hinduism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Oprah-ism, or Atheism (a religion like every other spiritual “ism”)--Jesus Christ is alive today and He will return at a time of the Father’s choosing.

What God commands of you, the reader, is the same thing He commands of me and all people everywhere, and that’s that you repent. Turn from your sin and turn toward God--and by faith alone receive Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. You must come to God on His terms. God does not negotiate with sinners. God will not be bribed by your religious practices or what you may perceive as "good works" acceptable to God. God will not weigh your “good” against your "bad," for God does not see you or anyone else as good--good in keeping with His standard of moral perfection. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

If you do not read the gospel of Jesus Christ and see it for what it is, good news, it is because you love your sin more than you love God. It is because you love yourself more than you love God. It is because the love of God and the Truth of His Word is not in you. But if God causes you to be born again and extends to you the gifts of repentance and faith, which only He can give, then He will take your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. You will begin to love the things God loves and hate the things God hates. You will stop presuming upon God’s forgiveness as if it is something you have earned or deserved. Instead, you will have the confident assurance He has forgiven you--not on the basis of any deeds you have done in righteousness, but based entirely upon God’s mercy, grace, and love.

And why would God allow His one and only Son to die a sinner’s death He did not deserve in order to take upon Himself the punishment sinners rightly deserve for their sins against God, so that sinners could be forgiven and saved? “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Please repent and receive Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, while God has given you time. Unless you repent, unless you turn, you will perish.

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