On February 9, 1971, I was nearly 16, in 10th grade at Taft High School, and living in Tarzana in the southwestern part of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. By 6:00 a.m. on school days, my older sister and I were supposed to already be up and getting ready to leave for an early-morning religion class, but we were still lolling in bed when the shaking started about a minute after 6. As there had been a fairly significant tremor around the same time about a month before, I planned on just "riding it out" in bed. As the shaking got stronger, however, my sister screamed, "Get up, you idiot, it's an earthquake!" (No duh.) Whatever semblance of calm I had had at the time evaporated, and I jumped out of bed.

She and I ran out of our room to the top of the stairs, where we met our brothers coming from their rooms (our bedrooms were on the second floor — ours was one of the very few "non-ranch-style" houses in the neighborhood). We could hear our next-door neighbors screaming over the deep sound of the quake itself and the sound of things falling or breaking. Our chandelier (on a long chain over the staircase) was swinging back and forth, hitting the walls. I yelled a prayer for God to protect us just as the electricity failed and the lights went out. Being plunged into near-total darkness was in some ways scarier than the shaking itself.

We all made it down the stairs and joined our parents (who came from their bedroom on the ground floor) in the guest bedroom next to the garage — this was a preplanned meeting place for just such an emergency (chosen because there was no second story overhead). We cowered together through the aftershocks until daylight had fully established itself. We knew that school wouldn't be held that day, but I can't remember if my dad ended up going to work downtown or not. (I rather doubt it.)

Our house was spared much damage — a couple of cracks here and there, and maybe one cracked window. Power was restored fairly quickly, and the first televised reports started coming in about the VA hospital in Sylmar that was hard-hit (accounting for most of the deaths)... and of the collapse of an overpass under construction on the I-5 en route to Santa Clarita. (The pickup truck that was squashed under the fallen segment of overpass remained there for months and months afterwards — a very grim sight.)

(As an aside, our Mormon bishop had just finished the graveyard shift in Santa Monica and was on his way home on the I-405. Just as he reached the crest and could see the brightly-lit panorama of the Valley before him, the earthquake struck. The Valley went totally dark, and then fires from broken gas mains started flaring up. He hadn't felt the earthquake, so he had no idea whatsoever what had happened — he thought the U.S. was under attack or somesuch. For someone with serious cardiac problems, it's amazing that he didn't have a heart attack then and there.)

Later that morning, a friend and I made our way down Ventura Boulevard, marveling at the cracked streets and shattered or cracked plate-glass display windows. Not a shop or store seemed to have been spared. We ended up at our local grocery store, Food Fair (later Theeee Movies of Tarzana), and helped re-stack boxes and cans. (For safety/liability reasons, we were not allowed to help clean up the aisles where bottles of cooking oils and dressings and jars of jams and jellies and peanut butter had fallen and broken. What a mess! —This was before plastic bottles were widely used, by the way.) Food Fair was the first store in the Valley to re-open that day (at around noon).

Meanwhile, there were great fears that the Lower Van Norman Dam on the north side of the Valley was going to collapse. Authorities were draining it as quickly as they could, but 300,000 people in the surrounding area were ordered to evacuate. Thankfully, the dam held, though it was damaged beyond repair. The huge broken slabs were visible from the freeway for a long time afterwards.

Schools were closed for three days to allow for thorough inspection, and of course when we returned to school, the earthquake took up a lot of class and social time for several days thereafter.

I remember two sizable aftershocks: one was during the early-morning religion class. When it started, we all ran outside. And there, on one of the patches of grass behind the church, a young tree was shaking violently back and forth — a very vivid image. The other memorable aftershock occurred when I was in 7th-period art class on the 3rd floor of Taft's C-building. The teacher yelled "drop!"—which I and all the other students did... but the thought occurred to me then that getting under one's desk when the floor was likely to drop out from under one didn't particularly make a whole lot of sense.

Those few moments of hard shaking in the darkness, accompanied by an other-worldly, loud and penetrating deep sound, was one of the scariest experiences of my life... but also one of the most interesting and exciting.