The Earth Moved
Not even his bride of a month can blame him. Because Patricia Kubeisy, 38, knows that her new husband is referring not to the standard jolts and jitters engendered by love, but to the terrifying earthquake that shook Southern California one year ago this week, leaving 57 people dead and some 15,000 homeless—and bringing together the Kubeisys, passing acquaintances until just before dawn last Jan. 17. "At first I thought, 'Oh, it's just another quake,' " recalls Mike, 35, a freelance photographer, of the seismic jolt that lifted the three-story Northridge Meadows apartment building where he lived off its foundation and flung it back down with such force that the first floor collapsed, killing 16 residents. "But when it started growing, the noise was just astounding. And then, suddenly, it stopped. Silence. That was more terrifying than the noise."
Though his third-floor apartment door was wedged shut, he squeezed out to the hallway through a fissure in his foyer wall. Meanwhile, down the hall, Tricia Silden, office manager of an L.A. law firm, who had moved to the building shortly before her divorce in 1992, was trapped in her apartment. She was on her balcony, preparing to jump when, through the darkness, she heard the faint sound of a vaguely familiar voice. "Mike?" she called.
"Who's that?" he yelled back.
"Tricia, in 341. But I can't get out."
Minutes later, Mike managed to hoist up a chain ladder from the ground, and Tricia, dressed in thermal underwear, a bathrobe, a jacket, a muffler and a purse wrapped around her neck, began wobbling down. "God," she murmured, "whatever happens, this is in your hands." Then she called out to Kubeisy, who was steadying the ladder, "I may have to drop my robe. Should I?"
"That depends," he said. "What have you got on under there?"
Hanging in midair, she burst out laughing. But not for long. Seconds after reaching the ground, someone handed Tricia a flashlight and told her to point to a crack in a wall in what had, an hour earlier, been the ground-floor apartment of her 77-year-old neighbor, Ruth Wilhelm. Another resident crawled into the bedroom and returned with grim news: Ruth was dead. "I couldn't believe it," says Tricia. "I was shaking, in shock."
Kubeisy, meanwhile, had disappeared into the darkness of the building, searching for other residents in need. Tricia might never have seen him again had they not met, by chance, several weeks later at a get-together for survivors organized by a local Methodist church. Afterward, they strolled to a mini-mart, drank a soda and chatted. They ran into each other at the Northridge Meadows complex in early February, when residents were told they could retrieve their belongings from the unsound structure. Tricia was surprised at the intensity of her reaction when, from the lawn, she happened to see Mike through a window in his apartment. "Please, God," she prayed, "don't let anything happen to him."
Before he left, Kubeisy walked over to Tricia to say goodbye. "You know, if you ever just want to talk," he said, "call me." But it was he who called. The next thing Tricia knew, it was mid-June and she was learning how to Rollerblade with her athletic new boyfriend. "All of a sudden there was this 10-year-old kid speeding at us," recalls Kubeisy. "Tricia took a bad spill, fractured her wrist and took a bad shot to her tailbone. I took her to the emergency room, and while we were waiting, she kept saying she enjoyed herself and that when she got better, she would do it again. Right then I knew: 'This is the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with.' "
Sitting in the living room of their recently purchased two-story colonial home in Simi Valley, two miles from the now-demolished Northridge Meadows complex, Tricia laughs—and counts her blessings.
"Five bedrooms and two baths," she says.
"Make that four beds and one bonus room," corrects Mike. "We're going to redo one as a closet."
No argument from Tricia. And yet, she says, "sometimes I wonder, how did good fortune come of this?" Her smile fades as she thinks back to the earthquake. "I got marriage to Mike and a new life—and yet, two floors below me, my neighbor Ruth died. I've had a difficult time coming to terms with that. I believe in God's plan, but there really is no answer to the questions: 'Why me? Why her?' Even now, it troubles me. It will be with me until the day that I die."
KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
F.X. FEENEY in Los Angeles