Northridge Earthquake 1994

File Photo: Catherine Scott of Burbank stares at the earthquake devastated Northridge Meadows Apartments on Sunday afternoon. She said she had heard so much about the damage since the Jan. 17. earthquake that she felt compelled to see it for herself. (Mark Savage / Los Angeles Times / January 15, 2014)

David Schmitt was jolted awake on Jan. 17, 1994, when the Northridge earthquake hit early that morning.

A Burbank fire engineer at the time, Schmitt immediately made sure his house along with his neighbors’ homes were secure. Roughly an hour later, he got a call from a co-worker.

“’Hey, you need to get in here,’” he recalled the co-worker saying.

Within two hours, he made it to the Burbank Fire Department — he had to zigzag his way from Simi Valley, navigating through closed freeways, all the while seeing plumes of smoke coming from the San Fernando Valley. He remembers being the only one on the road, though there were a number of abandoned cars.

“I just wanted to get to work, to start working, start helping out,” recalled Schmitt, currently a battalion chief with the department.

Friday marks the 20th anniversary of the magnitude 6.7 earthquake that claimed the lives of nearly 60 people, destroying homes and buildings, and causing billions of dollars in damage.

Schmitt checked in around 7:30 a.m. that morning, after most of the emergency calls — people pinned under dressers, trapped in rooms in their homes — had been handled, he said.

For the next roughly 72 hours, Schmitt and other Burbank first responders went on “run after run” dealing with broken gas and water lines, collapsing chimneys and a major propane leak at Saint Joseph Medical Center.

“That was rather precarious,” he said of the hospital incident.

Burbank Fire Chief Tom Lenahan, a firefighter/paramedic at the time, couldn’t immediately make it to Burbank from his Santa Clarita home because the quake caused the interchange at the Golden State (5) and Antelope Valley (14) freeways to collapse.

Burbank first responders who lived elsewhere and couldn’t travel to work checked in with their local agencies to see what help was needed, Schmitt said.

Burbank wasn’t hit as hard as other areas of Los Angeles County, Lenahan recalled. But in the two decades since the earthquake, the department has strengthened its earthquake preparedness education and outreach efforts, Lenahan said, reminding residents to stock up on water and nonperishable food.

“You have to be self-contained for up to 72 hours,” he said.

Additionally, the Burbank Fire Corps., a team of local volunteers trained in disaster relief, routinely conduct disaster response classes and recruit volunteers.

For more information about the program, visit www.burbankfirecorps.org.

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