The Northridge Earthquake at 20

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This week, Southern California is observing the 20th anniversary of an event that many wish had never happened, but which remains a vivid memory in the minds of hundreds of thousands of people who lived through it.

On January 17th 1994, at 4:31 in the morning,  millions of Southern Californians were awakened by violent shaking and a deafening roar. It was an earthquake, the most powerful to strike an American metropolitan area since the San Francisco quake of 1906.

The temblor, centered, in the San Fernando Valley, and which came to be known as the Northridge Earthquake damaged thousands of buildings, collapsed sections of the Antelope Valley and Santa Monica freeways, tossed trains off their tracks and ignited hundreds of fires across L.A. when gas mains ruptured. In all, the quake caused more than $20 billion worth of damage, making it one of the costliest natural disasters in American history.

Then there was the human toll of the earthquake. Thousands of people were injured in the catastrophe and 57 killed, including 16 who died in one apartment building in the San Fernando Valley, the Northridge Meadows Apartments, when the top two floors of the structure collapsed on the first. The building’s collapse happened so fast, many residents were found crushed in their beds.

Beyond the destruction it caused, the Northridge Earthquake is also notable for catching scientists by surprise. Seismologists didn’t realize that the type of fault that produced it, called a blind thrust fault, ran through that part of the San Fernando Valley where the temblor was centered.. In the two decades since the quake struck, researchers have found a number of such faults under the Los Angeles Basin.

Although tragic, the Northridge Earthquake did lead to a massive statewide program to seismically strengthen bridges and buildings and start a serious discussions about such issues as earthquake insurance and whether our building codes are up to snuff, a conversation which continues. The 1994 temblor also encouraged a generation of Southern Californians to be more quake aware and to never forget that we live on shaky ground.

Whether you remember it or not, we invite you to listen to our special KCRW story below about the Northridge Earthquake. It features dramatic archival sound from the quake’s immediate aftermath. We also visit a man with an unusual connection to the Northridge Earthquake. Scientists have determined that the epicenter of the destructive temblor was just a few steps from his house, the same house he was living in when the quake hit in 1994.