First-Hand: We crept out into utter devastation: Mary Williams and her family lost their home and most of their possessions in the 1971 Los Angeles earthquake

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Indy Lifestyle Online
IT was midnight on 8 February 1971. The children were in bed. I couldn't sleep so I opened the front door and stood looking out at the evening. It was the most beautiful evening. There was a dark black sky and a full moon, which looked as if it was resting its weight on the top of the San Gabriel mountains. The difference was that it was unusually quiet. There were no crickets chirping. No cats prowling around. There was no noise at all. Normally there were hundreds of animals scurrying about - rattlers, lizards, squirrels - but they'd all gone. I'm absolutely convinced they knew something was going to happen.

I came in. I couldn't settle. I didn't know what was going to happen, but I'll tell you this - I felt very, very uneasy when I went to bed. Five hours later, at 5.57, I woke up to a world about to self-destruct. Two things hit me simultaneously. First was the noise. It was absolutely deafening. It was like 100 locomotives bearing down on you at once. And then there was this violent, violent shaking. The minute I'd decided to jump out of bed, I was propelled from it. I called out to my husband, but I couldn't hear him above the noise. There was the breaking of glass, the straining of joists, the banging of furniture, as though the front door was being hit with a battering ram. I tried to grasp for the bed, but it just slipped to the other side of the room. I groped for the wall but it seemed to be rippling; it was fluid like a river.

My first thoughts were for my daughter. I made my way to the landing. I could hear her calling over the noise and I went into her bedroom. It was pitch black and I couldn't see her, but eventually I grabbed hold of her hand. At that moment the wardrobe pitched forward missing us by inches. We made our way to the stairs, and started trying to scramble down them. It was like being at sea in a force 12 gale, but the difference was that the stairs were moving much more violently than the rest of the house. I could hear my son calling from downstairs. My first thought was, where do we go? I knew that under the stairs would be the safest place - it's the strongest part of a house. It's human instinct to run outside, but what one really should do is get under something like a door lintel. If you go outside the earth can literally swallow you up. Everything flies around - glass, tiles, billboards, overhead cables twisting like snakes.

It suddenly occurred to me I didn't know where my husband was. Then I saw him coming down the stairs. The quake had only lasted one minute 28 seconds but it seemed like a lifetime. We stayed under the stairs for three-quarters of an hour. Like all Californian families, we had our earthquake survival kit - first aid kit, bottled water, canned food - that could keep us going for 48 hours or so. We waited until dawn.

When we crept out the scene was one of utter, utter devastation. It's hard for me not to be emotional when I'm describing it . . . All the food had been spewed out by the kitchen cupboards. The windows had blown out - shards of glass were everywhere. The chandelier in the drawing room had crashed to the ground bringing half the ceiling with it.

The stones of the patio were sticking up vertically like gravestones. All the water had been sloshed out of the pool and there was a big crack down the middle of it. Two of the outside walls of the house had gaping holes in them and had come away from the roof.

Luckily none of us were hurt although I had a gash in my little finger where the diamonds of my engagement ring had crushed into it. Our only contact with the outside world was a battery radio. President Nixon and the Mayor of New York sent out messages telling us to stay calm and not to venture out. We survived on our own supplies for the first 24 hours. Slowly neighbours congregated to see how everyone was.

The rescue operations moved pretty quickly. Makeshift shops were set up and after a week gas and electricity were reinstated. We were congratulated for being 'stiff upper lip', but after a fortnight or so, when things started to calm down a bit, I went into after-shock. I couldn't talk. A neighbour of ours had lost a son which had affected me badly.

My daughter and I went to stay with friends in New York for two weeks, and from there we went on to England. My husband stayed in Los Angeles with my son. They camped out in the bits of the kitchen that were still just about habitable. After six months or so the house was razed and they both came back to England.

We lost a lot of money. We weren't fully insured. Most of the furniture was written off. Insuring against quakes in West Coast America is like insuring against rain in Britain. The premiums are so high nobody does it. We lost about two-thirds of our things.

I still haven't adjusted. When you're used to being able to go out into the garden to pick oranges for breakfast; when you can nip to the San Gabriels to ski, or go for a weekend to San Francisco or Mexico, it's hard to adjust to having close neighbours and a small house and garden in Cambridgeshire. We had such a glittering life, and Nature gave us a huge slap on the wrists.

But whenever you go through trauma of that sort, there's always something you learn. It makes you respect the tremendous forces of nature - human beings are so puny and unimportant by comparison. They've developed an over-confident attitude about their ability to do things. But you can build marvellous cities like Los Angeles, with freeways that are the envy of the world, and it only takes 6.6 on the Richter scale to reduce it all to a few bits of concrete.

I've been back once. We thought of living in Arizona, but I couldn't bear the idea of splitting up the family again.

I thought Los Angeles was the Garden of Eden, but it had this terrible serpent.

Interview by Catherine Milner

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