It happened before dawn, a deep bucking from the heart of the earth. There were some 20 seconds of rumbling which set our home jolting and juddering like a ship hitting rocks. Such was the earthquake's violence that it was not the shaking that woke us. It was the confusing sound of glasses, dishes, pictures, shelves and hundreds of books crashing to the floor. Bright flashes lit the sky as electricity lines blew.
We live in the San Fernando Valley at the northern end of Los Angeles, a few miles from the epicentre of the most severe earthquake in the area since it was populated almost a century ago. Bigger even than the locally notorious Long Beach quake of 1933.
It was, our local radio station said, provisionally estimated at 6.6 on the Richter scale, capable of causing 'minor or modest damage'. But it felt - and looked - a lot worse.
Large sections of at least four of the freeways that bind Los Angeles together collapsed, including chunks of the Golden State Freeway. Had it not been a public holiday (Martin Luther King day) the city's car-dependent transport would have been halted.
As the sun rose over Ventura Boulevard, one of the main valley thoroughfares, it illuminated a scene sickeningly familiar to many Californians. Less than two months ago, fires swept down to the Pacific Ocean at Malibu, destroying scores of luxury homes in their path. Now, less than 30 miles away, there were more fires. Some thirty were burning around the valley.
At the corner of Ventura Boulevard and Murietta Avenue, Chris Murphy, a 30-year-old carpenter, was watching a blaze consume 12 shops. A manicure and waxing salon was being gulped up, so was a trendy cafe, a favourite with actors and producers. But Mr Murphy was mulling over his own narrow escape. His dollars 8,000 ( pounds 5,000) Harley-Davidson motorcycle, which he keeps by his bed so it cannot be stolen, crashed to the ground. 'It was really terrible,' he said, 'I'm from Boston. I've only been here six weeks and now this happens.'
The chaos continued up the Boulevard, an area which counts such luminaries as the Cheers television star Kirstie Alley and Michael Jackson's relatives among its residents. The scene was not unlike the riots which swept through another part of the city in April 1992. It had a random appearance - some shops looked wrecked, with roof tiles and window glass strewn around the streets; others were pristine.
There was a woman on the pavement, clutching her bleeding head in her hands. The manager of a recently opened pizza kitchen was commandeering one of the few working public telephones. 'My place is completely destroyed inside,' he said. Which you would think was upsetting. But he shrugged, and said: 'Insurance.'
It will be some time before it is known how many died although last night the estimate was 24. They will include 14 people killed when part of a three-storey building collapsed in Northridge, north of Los Angeles. A motorcycle policeman was killed when part of an interstate highway collapsed in front of him, causing him to fall 150ft into the darkness.
The figures will also include the bearded young man whom I found crumpled over the shattered steering wheel of his car, which had crashed into a petrol station sign.
When I arrived he was alive, surrounded by passers-by who had no idea what to do. His face was chalk-white and spattered with blood. The windscreen, which he had struck with his head, carried a strange dent of shattered glass. As the Los Angeles police and fire services were hugely overstretched, his rescuers were still waiting for help to arrive, after raising the alarm by mobile phone. Desperately worried, they made what may have been a fatal mistake. Fearing his car would catch fire, they decided to move him. Seconds after being lifted out he died, and seconds after that, a paramedic from the LA fire department arrived.
Such scenes revive a question Angelenos have been asking themselves almost since they reached the Pacific frontier. Yet again, they heard President Bill Clinton promising federal aid to California. Yet again the National Guard was being mobilised in an emergency. Is this patch of desert, with its drought, fires, floods and earthquakes, worth the effort?
'It's damnation,' said Cecilia Liddett, a 45-year-old actress. 'This is a good reason to go. I'm from New York, and I would rather be mugged than earthquaked - any day.'
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