Los Angeles

25 Years Later: The Desperate Search for Survivors at Northridge Meadows Apartments

The Northridge Meadows apartment collapse killed 16 people, the highest death toll at any single location during the Northridge earthquake, and revealed a catastrophic seismic safety problem

In the frightening and confusing first hour after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, fire-rescue teams were dispatched to collapsed buildings and freeway overpasses, fires and other emergencies around Southern California.

One of those locations was an apartment complex in the northwest San Fernando Valley that became a scene of sorrow and resilience. Few buildings illustrated the deadly power of the Jan. 17, 1994 earthquake like the 163-unit Northridge Meadows apartment complex in the northwest San Fernando Valley.

It was a Monday morning when the magnitude-6.7 quake rattled Southern California. At Northridge Meadows, located about two miles from the epicenter, the upper levels of the wood-frame structure collapsed on first-floor residents -- many of whom were asleep before the shaking began at 4:31 a.m. 

Fire-rescue teams searched the rubble for survivors, but the death toll continued to rise throughout the day. In the end, 16 of the 57 people killed in the earthquake died at Northridge Meadows -- the highest death toll at any single location.

At the time, the quake was the costliest U.S. natural disaster ever. About 82,000 residential and commercial units and 5,400 mobile homes were damaged or destroyed, nine parking structures collapsed, damaged hospitals were evacuated and key freeway bridges collapsed with hundreds more damaged.

But the catastrophic collapse at Northridge Meadows remains a particularly painful memory during a day of staggering destruction. It also is remembered for the unwavering efforts of firefighters who would spend hours in a desperate search for survivors. 

Residents who spoke with NBC4 that morning described the terrifying shaking felt like someone had lifted the building up, then let it crash back down. They also recalled the sounds of neighbors crying out for help.

Los Angeles firefighter Mike Henry, now retired, was at the horrific scene with the crew from Station 70 on that Monday morning. Moments after arriving, he was struck by the sight of a man on his hands and knees, apparently trying to see under the collapsed building. 

"I went over and asked him, 'What are you doing?' He said, 'There's a guy trapped under here.' I was thinking, there's no 'under' here. This is a slab. It's a building on a concrete slab.

In the low light of early morning, Henry shined a flashlight on a building that had been transformed in just seconds. Huge segments had collapsed, and the upper floor had pancaked on top of the lower level. 

Some quick math told him about 80 to 100 people might be trapped inside. With other agencies and stations dispatched to other collapsed buildings, gas leaks, fires and damaged freeway overpasses around the region, Henry knew back-up wasn't coming for hours.


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"It was a sense of urgency," said Henry. "We've got work to do. We've got a lot of work to do."

Just how much work would become clear as daylight arrived. The search continued throughout the first day and into the next. What was already a dangerous task on an unstable pile of rubble was complicated by powerful aftershocks.

Henry recalled a man found trapped between a filing cabinet and the ceiling, which pushed down on his chest with each destabilizing shock. He was rescued when firefighters used a door ask a stretcher to avoid risking paralysis when he was moved.

One rescue caught on camera became a point of light during one of Los Angeles' darkest days. Roommates Jerry Prezioso and Steve Langdon were pulled to safety -- injured, but alive -- after they were trapped in their beds.

The catastrophe revealed a seismic hazard -- so-called soft-story construction in which a building's ground level has a large open area for parking and other purposes.

A new apartment complex now stands at the site. The Los Angeles of 25 years later also rolled out important building retrofits and improved freeway overpass construction. 

"If it happened today, we might still see a collapse like Northridge Meadows because we haven't completed the retrofit," said seismologist Dr. Lucy Jones. "Let's put in it in five years. Half the deaths from the Northridge Meadows apartments are not going to happen because we've retrofitted those buildings."

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