Tim Whyte | ‘It’s the Big One’ and Other Memories of ’94

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By Tim Whyte

Signal Editor 

Sometimes, in “the moment,” you say and do things that, later on, strike you as funny or even a little embarrassing. 

For example, this week I was reminded of the 1994 earthquake, as we marked the 25th anniversary of the disaster. It may be officially called the Northridge earthquake, but back in ’94 we at The Mighty Signal refused to call it the Northridge earthquake — if you felt the shaking in Santa Clarita, you knew that shaker was as much ours as it was anywhere else’s. 

It was in that moment of shaking that I said the thing that later struck me as funny. And embarrassing:  

Like everyone else, my wife and I awakened to a sharp jolt, as if a giant being were picking up our Valencia condo building and spiking it like a football. 

In the midst of Mother Nature’s touchdown celebration, my wife and I grabbed each other and, as the bed bounced up and down and we rode it out, I shouted:

“It’s The Big One! It’s The Big One!”

Later, when I would reflect on it, I’d think that sounded … goofy. 

When the shaking stopped, our condo was a mess. Broken glass everywhere. An aquarium, toppled. All that fancy crystal we got as wedding gifts not quite two years prior? Shards. TVs? Gonzo. And this was in the days when a TV had some real heft to it. 

Bookcases toppled, including one that fell right over one of our two small dogs, who fortunately leaped out of the way in the nick of time. 

Once we got our wits about us, we piled the dogs into the car and made our way across town, for two reasons, and in this order:

1. To check on family, because family comes first, including my grandmother who lived in Saugus. Phone lines were down, so we needed to check on her in person. During our trek, we gingerly drove over at least two bridges that we thought might be sketchy. One of them was later closed due to quake damage. 

2. Once we knew family members were all safe and sound, there was this little business of covering the news. We made our way to The Signal’s building, which back then was on Creekside Road. 

Once we arrived at 24000 Creekside, it became more evident just how serious this was — and, how our staff had already risen to the occasion in the wee hours of the morning. 

It’s kind of a strange thing to look back on a disaster and feel pride. But when I think back on Jan. 17, 1994, that’s what comes to me. 

We had photographers and reporters who sprang into action, even before sunrise. There were bridges down, mobile homes burning, buildings broken, human drama playing out in real time… and the staff of The Mighty Signal was capturing it all, from the moment the Earth said “GO.”

It soon became clear that The Signal’s building was uninhabitable. If memory serves, we got a yellow tag from Building and Safety. 

In any case, there was no electricity. Printing the paper there was out of the question. And remember, this was before widespread internet and WAY before social media. 

We started holding news meetings in the parking lot, at appointed intervals. Our publisher at the time, Will Fleet, started working his contacts to sort out a way to produce the next day’s paper. 

Meanwhile, the journalists of our newsroom did what they do: Get $&!$* Done. 

Everyone pitched in. We even had a couple of advertising sales reps volunteer to help gather information. 

And as the day wound to a close, our production solution emerged: We would take our notes, our film (this was before digital photography) and a copy of our masthead, and venture up the 14 freeway to the Antelope Valley Press In Palmdale. 

We arrived just as they were putting their own earthquake edition to bed. Once they were done, they would show our reporters and editors how to use their computer system — which was very different from ours — and our photographers would use their dark room to process the many compelling images they had captured of one of the Santa Clarita Valley’s most trying and memorable days. 

We prepared a special eight-page, all-earthquake edition of The Signal, and printed it at the AV Press, then loaded it into a couple of vans to bring it back to Santa Clarita for delivery. 

I’ll never forget the moment when we crested the hill on the 14, arriving back in the SCV, aboard one of the vans carrying The Signal home. It was dark, and I could see a couple of small fires burning across the valley. 

I looked at my watch. 

4:30 a.m.  

It had been 24 hours, almost to the minute, since the ordeal began. And in that moment, I was at once aware of the difficulties that lay ahead, and proud as hell of how The Mighty Signal had risen to that singular moment in our valley’s history. 

Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column appears Sundays.  

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