When the Story Hits Home

updated 01/31/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/31/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

Last week, with his boss on vacation, PEOPLE LOS Angeles correspondent Todd Gold found himself in charge of the magazine's largest and busiest bureau. With 17 reporters to supervise and dozens of stories in the works, Gold, 35, expected to be busy: Little did he know. When the earthquake struck before dawn on Jan. 17, Gold, like everyone else, first had to ensure the safety of his family. Then he turned around and—amid confusion, busted freeways and broken phones—helped coordinate our efforts to report a difficult story on deadline. Here is how Gold remembers that day:

LIKE MILLIONS OF OTHER ANGELEVOS, my wife and I were jolted out of a deep sleep at 4:31 on the morning of Jan. 17. I don't remember opening my eyes or leaping from my bed to the protection of the doorway or anything else that happened in those first few seconds. A single thought occupied my brain, flashing on and off like a garish neon sign: EARTHQUAKE.

As the floor bucked up under me, I stumbled and lost my balance. Righting myself, I fell the wall leap forward and slap me in the back.

Even more frightening than the topsy-turvy rocking motion was the sound of this catastrophe in progress. As our house bumped up and down, sideways and back, I could hear glass shattering. Furniture shifting. Drawers flying. Plants tumbling. Floors and walls groaning. The piano overturned and added to the cacophony. All this destruction was invisible in the dark; there were only the sounds of chaos.

Without my glasses, I couldn't see my wife, but called out, "Beth, are you all right?"

"Yeah," she yelled, streaking by me in a blur of flannel nightgown. "The kids!"

When I reached the end of the hallway, she turned over the girls to me—Abby, 6, and Eliza, 4—and went to gel Jeremy, I, who, she later told me, slept uninterrupted in his crib. We stumbled toward the front door, tripping over furniture, miraculously without cutting our bare feet on the glass shards that covered the floor. "Daddy, what's happening?" Abby asked through sleepy, confused eyes.

"It's an earthquake," I said. And that explanation appeared lo satisfy the children through the long, cold predawn morning, which was spent huddled under blankets and jackets inside our van. I'd heard you were not supposed to sit in a car during an earthquake; trees may fall, the cars may tip. But how else can you keep track of three kids and keep them warm?

We made forays into the house for supplies—my glasses, food, diapers, radio, batteries, flashlight. One toilet had somersaulted across the bathroom, and I shut off the water that was gushing from the broken pipes. I sprinted out when the ground started shaking again, the first of many large, disturbing aftershocks that punctuated the next day and night and kept people's nerves raw and exposed. For some reason, I thought of the scene in the film Marathon Man in which Laurence Olivier drills into Dustin Hoffman's teeth and asks, "Is it safe? Is it safe?"

If the riots 21 months ago had ripped apart the social fabric of L.A., the quake, in some strange way, seemed to bring people closer together. Instead of retreating behind locked doors with loaded guns, neighbors tried to help each other. Steve Goldman from next door had been the first to ask us, "Are you guys okay?" Jim Robertson from across the street checked on the old man who lives next to him.

We were extremely fortunate. Structurally, our home was intact. But as we inspected the damage we found tons of breakage, ugly cracks in the walls and a chimney that would make Santa Claus nauseous.

By early afternoon our children had emerged from their shock; now they were downright frightened. While Jeremy ran wild from lack of sleep, Abby demanded to watch a video despite being told there was no electricity. Eliza, meanwhile, assumed earthquake position in our van—thumb in mouth, teddy bear in hand. She refused to come back inside and said she wanted to live in the van forever. "Can't somebody just make it slop shaking?" Abby asked.

We tried lo reassure them. I explained about earthquakes, using my fingers to portray the plates of earth making scary rumblings deep in the ground. Later that morning, Abby put into words what my wife and I were feeling. "We're lucky, Dad. aren't we?" she said. "None of us were hurt, and we're still a family, right?"

That afternoon, we drove to a hotel that provided electricity and a working telephone. After eight hours, I'd phoned nearly all our correspondents and found they were safe. I was worried sick about the lone exception, Doris Bacon, whose phone was dead. Before bed, Eliza, who'd been persuaded to leave the security of the van, broke several hours of silence and said, "I don't ever want to hear the word 'earthquake' again." No longer pretending to be the brave and strong dad, I said, "Me too." Even as I type this sentence, I feel a sizable aftershock that has me looking heavenward, wondering, like my daughter, "When are these earthquakes going to stop?"

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