LOS ANGELES, OCT. 1 -- A young man newly married stared up at the cupboards as the doors flew open and all his new wedding crystal smashed to the kitchen floor. An office worker embraced her colleagues in a darkened skyscraper lobby and wept as each aftershock rocked the floor again. A legal administrator felt the bus seat lurch beneath her as roughly as if a truck had slammed into them on the road.
"It just kept rumbling," said Emia Carter, whose bus was moving through the morning traffic when it was jolted from beneath by the worst earthquake to hit southern California in 16 years. "I thought we were hit from behind. I looked around, and I saw all the leaves fall off the trees, and the driver said, 'We're having an earthquake.' "
This is a city that likes to shrug off the occasional sudden jolt of the ground beneath the feet, but even Los Angeles earthquake veterans will remember where they were when this one hit. It was sudden and fierce, and even though much of its damage was in the nature of cracked walls and broken crockery, southern Californians spent most of their day today reliving the earthquake and almost everybody's wild fear that this would be what is generally referred to in this state as "The Big One."
"I've lived here for a year, and had horrible, horrible nightmares about The Big One," said Margie Thomas, who ran from Tony's Restaurant in the downtown the moment the ground began to shake. "I'm getting out of Los Angeles."
The Big One, of course, is a reference to the earthquake all Californians know has been building for decades along the San Andreas Fault, and which is predicted, when it hits, to cause massive devastation along the West Coast. This morning's earthquake registered as only "moderate" on the conventional assessments of relative severity, but the crashing of china and cracking of plaster was enough to remind most Californians how dangerous the ground beneath their feet can be.
At California State University (Los Angeles), students panicked and screamed when a wall in an underground parking garage collapsed, crushing microbiology and chemistry major Lupe Exposito, 23, who was one of the victims of the earthquake.
George Torres, of West Los Angeles, was fleeing the garage when the wall collapsed. "As I left my car, I could see people running and screaming and the glass lights above me falling down. I heard somebody calling for help," Torres said. He said Exposito's younger sister, Rosa, said, " 'My sister's under there.' She couldn't believe what had happened. Then she started praying."
Ruth Goldway, a spokeswoman for the university, said Exposito "was very well-known and very well-liked and a very strong student."
Whole portions of the freeway system shut down when supports cracked or buckled; officials advised that it might be days before vehicles are allowed. At Forest Lawn Memorial Park, a 20,000-pound reproduction of Michelangelo's David snapped at the ankle and smashed to the ground. Molding plummeted from buildings, elevators stopped between floors, and at the Los Angeles County Courthouse, the clock stopped, recording for the next few hours the moment of the morning's earthquake.
"I thought it was jet wash," said Elizabeth McDowell, a PSA flight attendant who was awaiting takeoff for Monterey when her airplane suddenly began to sway violently from side to side. McDowell lunged for the coffee pot, which was spewing liquid as the plane rocked, and the captain angrily called the Los Angeles International Airport operations center to say another plane appeared to have caught his behind its jets. "If I had known it was an earthquake, I would have panicked," McDowell said.
The radio stations were full of the earthquake today, as listeners called in to report where they had been and what they had felt. One remembered how terrified she had been during the 1971 earthquake; a second remembered that the 1971 earthquake had marked his 18th birthday; a third reported that stores were closing temporarily in the southeastern community of Bellflower.
The newlywed whose wedding crystal shattered was another radio caller.
"It was awful. I never felt it like that, and I've been here eight years," Elaine Lopez, who was in an upper floor office in the 32-story Transamerica building when the quake hit.
A certain amount of good humor attended this morning's earthquake as well. Universal Studios officials seized the opportunity to announce the opening next June of an earthquake thrill ride, a newly transplanted former Easterner broke into one chorus of "The Hills Are Alive," and a hardy collection of indefatigable Los Angeles surfers headed directly for the beach.
"We thought there would be big waves," said Chris Schlegel, who was looking slightly crestfallen as he strapped his surfboard to the top of his car. "We thought they would be big and powerful, but all they did was come in faster."
Schlegel's high school, a private boys' school, had canceled classes for the day in deference to the quake, and his friend Mike Weeks observed that possibly the aftershocks would help the waves pick up by early evening. "We'll be there," Schlegel said.
Staff researcher Matthew Lait contributed to this report.