The inscription on a small paper bag summed up the day exactly 20 years ago when the 1994 Northridge Earthquake shook the San Fernando Valley to its knees.

“We lost it all, paused and then rebuilt. Thank you for teaching resilience.”

In the dark hour just before sunrise, a small band of Angelenos gathered at Northridge Park to recall that fateful day, Jan. 17, when the earth gave way deep beneath the city to send a 4:31 a.m. shockwave across the region.

When millions of sleepers awoke to a thunderous roar before the jolt that flung them from their beds. When TVs flew, mirrors toppled and homes, businesses and freeways cracked in two.

 

The 1994 Northridge earthquake would do far more than kill 57 residents, injure 9,000 and inflict a record $49 billion in property and economic damage, tying up businesses and traffic for months and precipitating rebuilding efforts that would last years.

More than any other earthquake, it jostled a city living atop a labyrinth of faults to better prepare for the expected Big One. To buttress hospitals, homes and freeways. To improve emergency communications and water service. To encourage families to plan an earthquake defense.

 

Dear God, prayed Los Angeles police Chaplain Ken Crawford, standing in a circle of hands with more than two dozen residents on Friday, “though the Earth may quake and mountains will be carried into the sea, Lord, you will guide us.”

“Twenty years ago, this was a devastating event,” said Councilman Mitch Englander, whose district includes Northridge, and who was host of the dawn “Afterstories” tribute. “But this was a community that was resilient, that helped each other. Out of the rubble came heroes.

 

“This was a community that rebuilt. But we shall never forget. Our lives were forever changed.”

One by one, the residents from across the Valley recalled the warmer-than-usual Martin Luther King holiday when their homes and streets suddenly collapsed into rubble.

How the house shook so hard and so long that Pat Pope of Porter Ranch thought it would never stop.

How Valley Planning Commissioner Filiberto Gonzalez, then a freshman at Cal State, Northridge, thought a creature had shaken L.A. by its ears, then flung it into a pile of cracked wood and screaming car alarms. “It felt like a monster had picked up our building and was going to eat us alive,” he said.

 

Los Angeles police detective Sgt. Bill Bustos recalled the jokester of Valley Traffic Division, Officer Clarence Wayne Dean, who'd rushed down from the high desert on his day off to help victims of the quake.

He died when his police motorcycle, lights blinking, plunged 47 feet off a collapsed section of the Antelope Valley Freeway.

“He was Dizzy,” Bustos said, clutching a framed picture of his friend, taken off the wall in the Panorama City station. “He will always be remembered.”

Donna Zero recalled hearing a roar, like a train coming through the house. Then she was lifted up atop her waterbed, hugging her husband in midair, so as not to spill out together onto the floor.

 

The earthquake flung open the front door of her Granada Hills home, despite two bolt locks, as well as a bolted front gate. Power wouldn't be restored for four days, water service for a week. Her green-tagged home suffered $200,000 in damage, forcing the family to live in a motel for 20 months. It took seven years to reach a settlement with her insurance company.

“It was the worst nightmare,” recalled Zero. “One of the worst parts of the earthquake was getting back to a normal life.”

Spread across Northridge Park early Friday were 57 luminarias, lit from within, where people had penned their thoughts about the earthquake.

 

“I've been afraid of mirrored doors ever since,” recalled one. “Happy thoughts on this sad day,” recalled another. And “In remembrance of all the volunteers who help tirelessly in assisting the recovery.”

Later in the day Friday at Cal State Northridge, whose campus was rebuilt after nearly every building was destroyed or damaged, political and business leaders commemorated the devastating temblor and a city rebuilt in record time. Hosted by the Valley Economic Alliance — a business coalition formed in the aftermath of the earthquake — the “Valley of the Stars: Reaching New Heights” tribute honored seven officials who spearheaded the recovery and seven businesses who had weathered it.

 

The so-called Magnificent 7 included former Councilman Hal Bernson, former Mayor Richard Riordan, former Gov. Pete Wilson, retired L.A. Public Safety Field Deputy Jim Dellinger and his wife Catherine of Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center, former Los Angeles fire chief Frank Borden and Richard Andrews, former director of the governor's Office of Emergency Services.

The seven local businesses and institutions honored for rebuilding out of ruin were 3M Northridge, General Growth Properties, CSUN, Aerojet Rocketdyne, Southern California Gas Company, Galpin Motors and the Los Angeles Daily News.

 

Riordan said he was jostled awake by the quake, dashed out of his house without combing his hair, then went pedal-to-the-metal down the Santa Monica Freeway until spotting some oncoming headlights. Swerving, he pulled to a stop — just avoiding plunging off a collapsed I-10.

He and Wilson were both credited with cutting through red tape to relight the city, ink rebuilding contracts and get freeways moving in months instead of years. “We just said, ‘Let's make it happen,'” Riordan said. “And we did.”