Elizabeth Gleick
January 31, 1994 12:00 PM

Until last week. Northridge Meadows, 9565 Reseda Blvd., Los Angeles, Calif., 91324, had been just an average wood-and-stucco three-story building on a busy urban thoroughfare. Its one-and two-bedroom apartments were occupied by a mosaic of retirees, families, single professionals and college students from nearby California State University, Northridge. Rents ranged from $650 to $850 a month. In the center of the 163-unit complex was a pleasant courtyard with a swimming pool., a babbling brook and a gazebo. Residents liked to fire up barbecues or sun themselves at picnic tables near the pool, socializing and watching their neighbors swim.

Now the occupants of Northridge Meadows—about 30 miles northwest of downtown L.A.—are linked not by their pleasant pastimes but by heroism and tragedy. Seconds after the earthquake hit. the first floor of the building collapsed under the weight of the top two stories. Sixteen first-floor residents—nine female and seven male—were killed. Many of those who survived—bruised, shaken, their sense of home and safety shattered—say they will be picking up the pieces for weeks, even months, to come.

Steven Langdon, Apt. 106

As the 45-year-old computer operator lies in the intensive care unit of Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center, a tube drains blood from his lung cavity, and the right side of his face is bruised and swollen. He had woken up a little earlier than usual that Monday morning and was on his way to fix coffee at 4:31 a.m. when the upper floors of Northridge Meadows came down on his first-floor apartment. He was pinned in a crawl space three feet high, his head and shoulders crushed against his bed, the rest of his body on the floor. He could move only his arms and legs. His roommate, Jerry, 62, a shuttle-bus driver, was trapped in the next room. “We’re going to make it, because if God didn’t want us to make it, we wouldn’t be alive right now,” Langdon remembers calling to Jerry. “Next time we’re moving to the top floor,” responded Jerry. The joke lifted Langdon’s spirits, and Jerry vowed, “We’ll have that drink together yet.”

But as the hours dragged on, the two men remained imprisoned. Each aftershock brought more of the building down on top of them. “I don’t know how much more of this pressure I can take,” Langdon thought under the weight of the debris. Though the men heard firefighters, with their chain saws and axes, at 5:30, it was not until 9:30 a.m. that the rescuers reached them. Jerry was rescued first, and Langdon has been unable to find out where his roommate is or how he is doing. And before Langdon could escape, crews had to lift up an entire wall that had fallen on his head.

Langdon’s prognosis, according to Dr. Richard Minter, is miraculously excellent. But Langdon has no idea what he will do next. “My first concern is to see if anything I had is still there, and then I’m not sure,” he says. “I don’t want to be a homeless person. But I feel lucky-to be alive.”

Karol Runnings, Apt. 108

In Phoenix, Bill Runnings, 27, was watching the earthquake news at his job as a lab technician on the midnight shift at the Good Samaritan Hospital when he recognized the apartment building that kept flashing across the television screen. It was where his mother, Karol, lived. His sister Julie, 29, a physical therapist also living in Arizona, had the same horrible thought. “I didn’t want to believe it,” she says. “But when I heard the name, Northridge Meadows, I lost it.” Bill and Julie flew to Los Angeles that afternoon and began a nightmare round of visits—to shelters, hospitals and police stations—trying to locate their mother. It was nearly 24 hours after the quake when they finally received confirmation that she had been killed.

Karol Runnings, who worked at a Los Angeles insurance company, would have been 49 next month and had lived at Northridge for two years, since her divorce from Bill and Julie’s father. “She really liked the apartment,” remembers Julie, who had encouraged her mom to move to Arizona after the L.A. riots. “She enjoyed the independence.” Bill and Julie are thankful that Karol’s boyfriend, John Murphy, was at his own home the night of the disaster, but they are finding it hard to absorb the fact that their mother was one of those randomly struck. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. We want to call her and we can’t,” says Julie. “Things are meant to be—that’s the only thing you have to realize.”

Joseph Tyler, Apt. 228

The 30-year-old business major at Cal State, Northridge had been up late reading and had fallen asleep on his couch only an hour before the earthquake hit. When he raced out onto his second-floor balcony, he was slammed into the railing. “I couldn’t move,” Tyler says. “All I could do was get thrown back and forth. It fell like the end of the world.” He helped rescue the woman next door by kicking her door in, then the two crawled down—the ground suddenly only a short distance away—to safety.

Temporarily homeless, Tyler is staying with friends in Encino, but he expects it will be a while before he gets a peaceful night’s sleep. He may take a semester off from school. “I’ve been reassessing my life, my values,” he says, his hand unsteady as he lights a cigarette. “When life is taken away from people around you and you’re so close to it…” He leaves the sentence hanging. Suddenly the ground rocks with another aftershock, one of more than 300 that followed the quake, and Tyler looks queasy. “Was that a tremor?” he asks. “Oh God.”

Wendy Sheeler, Apt. 321

Even if she gets the chance to search for her lost possessions among the ruins of her former home, Wendy Sheeler says she is never going back. “We saw some pretty gruesome things already,” she says wearily. “And I heard on the news that they had spray-painted DB for dead body on those units where people were killed. I don’t want to see that.”

Sheeler, 27, who owns a clothing and flower-pot company in Valencia, and her fiancé, Steve Grossmann, 27, a lawyer, escaped from their third-floor apartment after a dresser had come crashing down on them. Now, 24 hours later, as she stands in front of Northridge Meadows describing the chaos in the aftermath of the quake, a tall ponytailed woman comes up and hugs Sheeler. Wendy squeals happily as she introduces the newcomer. “This is our neighbor, Gwen [Whitten-brock], whom we never met before 4:31,” she says. “We both came out in the hallway at the same time and held hands and cried together.”

Sheeler and Grossman—along with countless other quietly heroic residents and rescue-crew members—helped others crawl out of the wreckage. Robert Horton, for instance, who lived in the building next door, found a ladder along with three other men and helped dozens of people climb to safety. And that courage, says Sheeler, is the blessing to be found amid the destruction. “To know that strangers put themselves al risk to come into your building and help you—well, it just restores my faith in humankind,” she says. “We have all these drive-by shootings and gangs and lousy people, and then somebody you have never met saves your life.”

ELIZABETH GLEICK

TOM CUNNEFF, NANCY MATSUMOTO, VICKI SHEFF-CAHAN and CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Northridge

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