Whittier Narrows Earthquake

Earthquake Aftermath

On a warm L.A. morning, the first day of October 1987, Johnny Babbitt and I were working as radio car partners assigned to Firestone Station. Neither of us could have been any happier.

Our friendship predated the department. We were hired and put through the academy together. Once graduated, we worked custody together. A couple of years later we transferred to Firestone Station together, landing two of the five available spots. We joked that we had joined the department on the “buddy system” and could not be separated.

After completing the grueling, six-month training program, we each bounced around working with different people before we were able to hook up as partners. We were living some of the best days of our lives.

Whittier Narrows Earthquake

At 7:42 a.m., our world was rocked, literally. As it was for all Angelenos. The most powerful earthquake to hit Los Angeles since 1971 had struck, registering 5.9 on the Richter scale. It would be dubbed the Whittier Narrows earthquake, and leave in its wake eight people dead and another two-hundred injured.

Johnny and I had stood eating breakfast on the hood of our radio car in the parking lot of Spartan Burgers. (There were no better breakfast burritos in a ten-mile radius.) Though not the most scenic destination in Los Angeles, Spartan Burgers did offer a great view of the Tiki Motel, located directly across the street.

The Terminator

While Spartan Burgers was famous for one thing only—great burritos—the Tiki Motel was famous for two: The Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Terminator, and heroin addicts. But the cast of movie stars, directors, and cameramen had moved on, and all that remained were the hordes of hypes (heroin addicts) and jumbo cockroaches.

Both having been raised in Southern California, Johnny and I were familiar with earthquakes. As the ground shook, our eyes met. Each of us immediately recognized the gravity of the situation.

When the initial jolt subsided and only shaking still remained, Johnny’s eyes grew large and his gaze drifted beyond me with great interest.

The quake was felt as far south as San Diego, and north to San Luis Obispo. It was reportedly felt in Las Vegas, Nevada. Remarkably, the violent jolt and its continued shaking stirred addicts and roaches alike, and each began scurrying from the darkest crevices of the Tiki Motel. Men and women with pinpointed pupils and scars from intravenous drug use were suddenly amassed in public, the sight of which had captivated my partner.

He set his burrito on the hood of our car, the dining table to ghetto cops of that era, and started across the street. I reluctantly followed, asking, “What the hell are you doing, Johnny?”

He looked at me as if I were dense. “Look at all the hypes! I’m going 10-15.”

“You’re arresting hypes during an earthquake?”

Firestone Deputies on the Hunt

Firestone deputies abhorred day shift. Most stations, you had to earn seniority to avoid working nights. At Firestone, the opposite was true. Deputies who chose to work Firestone did so for the action. There was a high level of activity—crime and violence. It was said that you weren’t a real cop unless half of your shift fell during the hours of darkness.

For day shift deputies, the end of their shifts found the gangsters, dope-dealers, and killers just waking up and starting to move about. Hypes, on the other hand, needed their breakfasts. Meaning, they needed to score heroin first thing in the morning to “get well.”

When heroin addicts come down from their highs, they become sick with symptoms resembling the flu. Only more heroin will make them feel better. After they got well, and once the euphoric high dissipated, hypes needed to get to work, stealing to support their habit.

Most daytime burglaries are committed by hypes. “Arrest a hype, you’ve taken a burglar off the street.” Dayshift deputies found hypes to be the best source of entertainment.

Saved by Nurse Sandy

Just then a car abruptly turned into the lot and stopped next to us. It was a nurse who worked downtown. I knew her. She was frightened and asked what we knew about the shaker. It was enough of a distraction to keep my partner from loading the back of our car with Under the Influence arrests—for the moment. As we finished assuring Sandy it was safe to continue her travels, our radio began crackling with emergency traffic. Fires, medical emergencies, and general panic had struck our jurisdiction.

Johnny looked like a kicked dog as we silently retreated to our radio car, foregoing our cleanup of the famed Tiki Motel.

Emergency Mode

We spent the next several hours responding from one emergency call to another. Everyone did. On one such call, we found an apartment building engulfed in flames. There were people running out, but others running in. They were going back into a burning building for material possessions! (Babbitt tells a more humorous version of this, privately.)

Johnny and I ran inside the smoke-filled building several times to push, pull, and prod these residents to safety. Eventually, the fire department arrived and took over their fire-fighting duties (yawn). We drove over their hoses and headed to the next emergency.

The field sergeant had heard of our heroic efforts. He would make a notation in the “black book,” a book filled with both good and bad notations to be used in preparing annual evaluations. But that was it. No medals, fanfare, nor passes on our next screwup, which would surely come. Just a note in a book long since forgotten, stating we had risked our lives running into a burning building. The notation didn’t even make clear that we had done so several times, and that we had brought residents to safety.

Firestone could be funny that way.

The Aftermath

Emergency Operations protocol was enacted and remained in effect for several days. Many of the residents refused to go back to their homes for weeks, for fear of the buildings collapsing. The parks became campgrounds, and once the rumbling stopped, the crime resumed. Now there were more vulnerable people and vacated buildings on which the predators could prey.

Which meant we remained too busy for misdemeanor arrests in the following days. The hypes were left to their devices, free to inject opiates and steal from their neighbors to support their habits. Firestone deputies were too busy to worry about them, even as they remained in plain view.

And Johnny was none too happy about any of it.

* * *




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14 thoughts on “Whittier Narrows Earthquake

  1. Unfortunately, LEOs & other Emergency Services personal usually get far too little credit for risking their lives. The notable exception was those working — and dying — on 9/11 in NYC.

    I find few people remember the Whittier Narrows Earthquake. I was living near LAX at the time, was ok, so I called to check on my mother, who still lived and worked in the San Gabriel Valley, where I had grown up fishing with Dad at Legg Lake within Whittier Narrows.

    There were, of course, extensive power & phone outages near the quake’s Epicenter. But I was able to call mom to ascertain she was ok. In fact, “Mrs Clean” had already cleaned up messes from items that smashed on the floor in the kitchen & bathroom. Of course, the prompt aftershock immediately reversed her efforts, but she left the mess that second time, because she’d called in to work & couldn’t get through — not good when you’re the boss — she had to go.

    Mom was a nursing home administrator in the East San Gabriel Valley for 27 years, so she knew everyone in the business nearby. When we realized that I could call from Playa del Rey to San Gabriel Valley, Mom gave me an assignment. She had me call all the other nursing homes in the area, to find out if they had specific needs due to damage or power outages. Those that were ok, I asked if they had beds available to accept patients evacuated from unsafe conditions.

    Finding ways to respond quickly but calmly in the emergency meant less suffering & confusion for literally hundreds of extremely old & infirm patients when the obvious priorities revolved around Emergency & Acute Care Hospitals.

    I didn’t get to my own job at Purex in Carson until after noon, where the earthquake was minor & my boss not totally understanding about me taking an unscheduled morning off … especially since I held some responsibility for the Purex plant on Firestone in Southgate, just across the freeway from the LASD Firestone Station.

    And believe me — the employees at that plant appreciated having the Firestone Station nearby!

  2. Definitely all of you deputies are heroes for doing something, anything to stop the “hype zombies”, or the “ET Methheads” as I call them now.

    That earthquake showed how vulnerable the area was to a major disaster. Until 1994 and Northridge, that earthquake leveled Whittier and parts of Los Angeles permanently. In a future emergency of this magnitude, the “hypes and methheads” will be causing serious crime and harm all over the L.A. County area. SCC will be activated, but the damage will be extensive and resources way too thin to respond to all calls for assistance.

    There is a rare VHS of the Biscaluz or Central Jail being evacuated in panic as the earthquake began that morning. I hope to digitalize that video someday, because the next major quake is a certainty, and the past is worthy of being remembered and treasured!

    P.S. Loved the Arrest gods blog post! What happened to the shooter afterwards?! Just curious 😊

  3. Lillienfeld and I were standing at the back door of FPK DB when it hit. Mark was ready to get on a plane and go back to Chicago…. all of us called him a big fat >ussy and he sucked it up and stayed. Met Linda Hamilton at the Tiki when they were filming the movie….. that woman was incredible.

    Davey Lopes and I….. and you…. and others….. took a lot of scrotes to jail out of the Tiki and the Town and Country. Great times mijo…..

  4. Enjoyed the article. Especially re: the black book notation on your going into a burning building. Reminded me of an incident 18 yrs ago. My partner Delisio and I ran up a staircase of an apartment bldg engulfed in flames. Assisted two ESD Deps. Stuck at the top of the stairs with a 400lb invalid. They got a medal. We got the old you got calls waiting in your buffer. Life of a patrol Dep.

  5. thanks I got a good laugh at recalling about asking Scott to go home to check on my Harley. It was that same Parking Control Officer that got on the air and asked for permission to go home and check on her dog, right before she radioed that she needed to go to the hospital because of the smoke from the flares.
    Those were good days…….

  6. Thanks Dan, a fond memory and very close to the way I recall it all those years ago.
    Pat “bullet head” Martin was eating breakfast with us at Spartans. Being a native Californian, and being outside, the shaking didn’t phase me. All those hypes just four lanes across Santa Fe (in which traffic had already stopped) were like big fat fish in a barrel, and I was going to catch them all…be damned the earthquake. I remember you and Pat trying to persuade me otherwise as I started across the street.
    Scott Fines as the watch deputy. He went to self dispatch and ordered all units to 10-19 (return to the station). It was tough to walk away from those hypes, who had already begun to scramble back inside their motel rooms. But I wasn’t going to go against what Scott Fines said for a bunch of misdemeanor arrests, albeit hypes which was always a good hook.
    On the way in we saw the apartment complex on the north side of Nadeau fully engulfed, with dozens of Hispanic men, women and children running in and out trying to save their belongings. We stopped at the risk of receiving a serious Scott Fines ass chewing, and cleared that complex. Like you said, we made several trips into that fully engulfed building and even belly crawled up the stairs (to stay under the smoke blanket) on our last trip. I looked north and yelled “is there anyone in here” and you looked south and did the same. Fortunately no one answered because we had to get out of there. We looked at each other and both said “lets get out of here.”
    I’m sure we had some degree of smoke inhalation, as both of us had burning lungs. We ran over those hoses and reported to Scott at the station.
    A parking control officer was stationed to stop traffic and keep other people from running over those hoses. After about 15 minutes she needed to be transported to the hospital because the smoke from the flares was hurting her lungs. You and me stayed 10-8 for the next 12 hours.
    John Harris was the sergeant that day. A good man. But he wrote me up for being five minutes late for briefing that morning. The write up for briefing made it to my unit file, not so much any mention of us saving all those folks. But John was otherwise a good sergeant, RIP.
    As final note….I later became the service area lieutenant (SAL) for Florence, Firestone and Walnut Park. As the SAL, I was more concerned with crime stats then my arrest stats (lieutenants rarely arrest anyone anyway). I made it my business to shut down the Tiki motel. An LA Unified School now stands in it’s place.
    Thanks for the memory and indulging my walk down memory late.

    1. Thank you, John, for your comments. Yes, there are some details there I hadn’t remembered, like PM having joined us for breakfast. I do remember Fines was on the desk, and there were other parts I didn’t include, such as you asking him on the radio if you could go home and check on your Harley. This of course, after an unnamed civilian had said she needed to go check on her dog or something. Thanks for your input. I bet people will enjoy hearing your addition. Those were fun days.

  7. A few of us IRC deps. were in the locker room at the bottom of the jail when it hit. We thought the whole building was coming down and we were dead.

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