32 Seconds in Coalinga
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“32 Seconds in Coalinga,” New Era, Nov. 1983, 12

32 Seconds in Coalinga

Leif Sirman sprinted out from second base on a good hit from a teammate, but he wouldn’t ever make it to third. “When I tried to run I kept on falling down,” the nine-year-old explained. “Then I didn’t want to run to third when I saw the wall behind it falling down.”

Thirteen-year-old Lynnette Thompson wondered why the dogs kept barking and running around in circles in the yard. Then the fence she was standing by started to rattle, and her dad, who had just climbed down from the roof of the house, yelled at her to stop shaking the fence. She started to protest that she wasn’t doing anything to the fence, when the rock wall by the house started to crumble. “Then everything started jumping around. I saw the flagpole fall over, and the roof of the house jumped up several inches and came back down.”

Ray Hedgecock, 15, walked out of a stereo shop to get on his bike and head for home, then decided to go back in and look at some tapes. Moments later the lights went out, the ground began to rumble and shake, glass shattered out of windows, and stereos bounced off of shelves. The beam Ray was standing under protected him from falling light fixtures. Thirty-two seconds later, his bicycle was buried under a pile of bricks, the building across the street was ablaze with fire, and most of the buildings within four blocks were reduced to rubble. “All you could hear was the ground rumbling, it was so loud. There was so much dust you couldn’t even see across the street,” Ray recalled.

Earthquakes are not uncommon in California, where the San Andreas fault stretches from the Gulf of California to north of San Francisco. But even when you live where earthquakes are likely to occur, they usually catch you by surprise.

“Nobody really expects it to happen to them,” said 16-year-old Douglas Fowkes. “Everyone said, ‘Coalinga is not close enough to the San Andreas. We won’t have to worry.’”

But when it does happen to you, Church members in Coalinga found that being prepared and having the gospel can take away a lot of the fear and make recovering a lot less traumatic.

On Tuesday, April 26, members of the Coalinga Ward welfare committee met with other welfare leaders of the Hanford Stake in an emergency preparedness training seminar. Each ward was given a hypothetical disaster and assigned to come up with a plan of action for dealing with that situation. The scenario for the Coalinga Ward read: “A severe earthquake has caused major damage to the city of Coalinga and surrounding area. Power and communication by telephone are out. Fires are burning in some areas of the city. Many homes and public buildings are partially or totally destroyed.”

As Coalinga Ward leaders discussed their plan of action that Tuesday night, no one suspected that in less than a week they would actually be putting it into effect. Bishop Fowkes, a geology professor, conducted the session. “It’s not very likely that we’ll see a major earthquake in Coalinga,” he began. (Coalinga’s location in relation to the San Andreas fault made a large earthquake seem unlikely.) “But we’ll go ahead with this exercise and come up with a plan anyway,” the bishop continued.

The following Monday, May 2, at 4:43 P.M., an earthquake measuring 6.5 on the Richter scale hit just outside of Coalinga on an unknown fault. The downtown area was devastated, buildings caught fire, power was disrupted, and several homes were knocked off their foundations. Nearly every home sustained damage of some kind. It was time to implement the plan.

Home teachers and priesthood group leaders immediately set out to see if any ward members had been injured or needed help. As they canvassed the neighborhoods, they made sure everyone had turned off the gas, electricity, and water and helped those who hadn’t. Within two hours most families in the ward had been contacted.

“There were people here within 15 minutes asking if we were okay,” reported Denise Woolsey, a 16-year-old Laurel. “I said to my nonmember girlfriend, ‘See, that’s our Church members coming around to see if we’re all right.’ It made me feel safe knowing that the Church was there.”

One of the matters that had been discussed in the stake welfare meeting was how the needs of ward members could be relayed to stake leaders if telephone communications were not functioning. Don McNeece, the high priests group leader in Coalinga and a ham radio operator, had been designated as the primary communication link with stake leaders in Hanford, 45 miles away. The evening of the earthquake, he was able to get the information to stake president Gerald Thompson that most members had been accounted for and, while many suffered extensive property damage, there were no deaths or injuries.

Early the next morning President Thompson visited Coalinga to help ward leaders assess the damage and determine how the stake could help.

The greatest immediate need, especially for the elderly, was for help in getting their homes back in order. For 79-year-old Veda Cooper, who was crippled from a bone disease, the experience was traumatic, and the love and service offered by ward and stake members were badly needed.

“I was standing in the kitchen doorway when everything started falling down,” she explained. “I couldn’t get backward and I couldn’t get forward. It felt like the house was going to come tumbling down. But I couldn’t get out and run. I’m crippled. Everything that could fall fell. Jams and jellies, pickles, clothes, suitcases, goblets and glasses, a whole set of china for 12—everything was all mixed together. Water was squirting all over the bathroom.

“Later when I thought about all the mess I started feeling sorry for myself. I thought, now look, I’m not afraid to work. And it’s all right for the Lord to take my husband, and it’s all right to have my three sons so far away. But I felt like it was just adding insult to injury to be crippled and alone and then to have a mess like this. The tears were running down, and I thought, I’ll be all summer getting this mess picked up.

“Then here came somebody knocking on the door, somebody from Hanford to help me clean up, and I didn’t feel sorry anymore. But for a little while I thought this is too much—just too much—until help came. Then in no time they had the water turned off, and the plumbing fixed, and the mess cleaned up, and I was just doing fine.”

Shari Vanlandingham, 14, and a convert of eight months, said she feels that being a member of the Church makes a big difference during a time of calamity. “I don’t know what we would do if we didn’t have all this help. After the quake they had a meeting at the Church and asked what everybody needed. Whatever you needed, they would help you get. Everybody was helping everybody.”

Janel Woolsey, 14, agreed. “The Church made a lot of difference. The evening of the quake the church was opened for anybody who needed food or a place to sleep. People just came by to see if they could help.”

The meetinghouse quickly became a center for coordinating relief efforts. Several families whose homes were unsafe to live in set up tents and trailers in the parking lot. The bulletin board in the foyer was divided into headings—Carpentry, Plumbing, Brickwork, etc.—with listings of those who needed help in each area. Local radio stations announced that anyone who needed help cleaning up could contact the LDS church.

The Church organization was able to respond quickly to individual needs largely because of preparations that had been made before the earthquake. Even before the Tuesday planning meeting in Hanford, ward leaders had compiled a list of supplies that ward members could provide in the event of a disaster. They knew who had campers, tents, cooking equipment, and first-aid supplies. They knew what members were trained in medical, plumbing, and construction skills. And members of the ward welfare committee had been assigned specific responsibilities in the event of a disaster—communications, child care, food preparation, sanitation, emotional problems, etc.

While most members had plenty of food, cooking it with the power off was a problem. And since everyone was so busy trying to clean up their homes, the evening meals provided by different wards in the stake were extremely welcome. For two weeks after the quake, meals were prepared by the Relief Society sisters in the stake and transported over long distances to Coalinga.

Even more important than the food was the emotional support and closeness derived from ward and stake members coming together to talk and share concerns. “Coalinga is about the farthest ward from the stake center,” explained Sister Millie Netherton. “We used to see these people at meetings and work with them, but we didn’t really know them very well. Now we fall into each other’s arms we’re so glad to see each other.”

About a month before the earthquake, the Relief Society had shown a film to the ward about the 1971 San Fernando earthquake. As a result of that film, many families had taken their own precautions.

James and Shirley Sirman had prepared small emergency backpacks for their whole family. The packs contained identification cards (in case the children got separated), a three-day supply of food, a change of clothing, flashlights, water purification tablets, and other emergency supplies. Although their children are young (ages 3 through 9), they knew the places in their house that are safest in an earthquake, and they knew where in the yard to meet after the quake.

The Fowkes family had been having emergency drills during family home evenings for several years. This training helped them instinctively do the right things when the quake hit. Nathan, 13, who was studying in the library, immediately dove under a table that protected him from being hit by a tall cabinet of books. His younger brother and sister ducked under the kitchen table at home and missed being hit by falling china. just three weeks before the quake, Sister Fowkes had shown her son Kendall, 9, how to turn off the gas, electricity, and water in the house, so he could earn a Cub Scout achievement. This knowledge saved the family from a flooded basement, since the quake caused a water pipe to break.

Ten years earlier the Fowkes had made some other preparations. Following two consecutive dreams about being in an earthquake, Sister Fowkes insisted that her husband string wire in front of the shelves in their fruit room before they left on vacation. Eventually their foresight paid off. While they had over 200 bottles stacked seven shelves high, none were broken.

But perhaps even more important to the Latter-day Saints in Coalinga than the disaster plans, the emergency supplies, and the stored food were the reserves of faith, testimony, and gospel knowledge that grow naturally when people are obedient to the Lord and try to follow the counsel of his leaders—reserves that can turn a calamity into a chance for spiritual growth.

A lot of members in Coalinga would agree with President Joseph F. Smith’s observation that the Lord allows natural calamities “for the good of his children, to quicken their devotion to others, and to bring out their better natures, that they may love and serve him” (Gospel Doctrine, Deseret Book, 1919, p. 55). It’s not hard to find examples in Coalinga these days of people’s “devotion to others” or to see evidence of their “better natures.”

Brother Lawrence Richie, retired for ten years and living alone since his wife’s death, had his home paid for. The quake caused severe structural damage, requiring him to move into a trailer until the house could be made safe. But none of this has dampened his good spirits. “We were flooded out one time, and we were burned out one time. Now we’ve been shook out. That’s just the way it goes,” he added good naturedly. And he didn’t find it hard to see a positive side to these experiences. “You know how people draw apart? When there’s a disaster they unite. They get together, and they work together. When that quake hit, the town was just like this,” he said, clasping his palms together.

Fifteen-year-old Tracy Boucher agreed. “Everybody worked together. All my neighbors helped us out, and we helped them out. Before, hardly anyone helped each other, but in this situation everyone was helping.”

Many members found that the earthquake brought their priorities into much sharper focus. “I always take it for granted that the world is just gonna keep going and nothing is going to happen while I’m alive,” Denise explained. “So when it hit I thought, this is the end of the world. Oh man, I need to repent.”

“I realized that in a few minutes you could lose everything—your whole house and everything in it—but you’re still the same person,” said Dan McNeece, 18. “You get worried about all your stuff, but if you really think about it, it’s just here, and after you die you’re not going to have it. I think more now about the things that really matter.”

There are others, too, who are thinking more now about the things that really matter. “My wife had gone through I don’t know how many houses and helped clean up,” explained Brother Roy Vanlandingham. “And after she looked at all that broken fine china and cut glass, we realized what Christ meant when he said not to store up your treasures on earth. No matter what you’ve got, it can be taken away from you in less than 32 seconds. Your family is the only thing that matters. During the aftershocks, we sat in the middle of the street and watched our house rock three feet in each direction. But once I had found out my family was all right the panic was over.”

“I was pretty weak in the Church, and I wasn’t planning on going on a mission,” said Cary Scherer, a 19-year-old college student. “But because of this I feel I need to straighten out my life and get closer to the Lord, because when these kinds of things happen I’m going to need his help.”

Sister Netherton is confident that her family is receiving the Lord’s help. With her home destroyed and the family’s food storage inaccessible in the basement, she is full of faith in the Lord. “My husband is two years from retiring, and we have three teenagers. I don’t know how we can start over this late in life. But I feel so calm. The Lord says he is bound when we do what he commands us to do—not that the Church is going to come in and take over—but we’re going to be able to manage. The gospel gives total purpose to life and helps you put value on the things that are of most worth. Material things are just not important. This is what’s comforting us—the gospel—so there’s no fear.”

Photos by Rex E. Cooper

“Nobody really expects it to happen to them. Everyone said, ‘Coalinga is not close enough to the San Andreas. We won’t have to worry.’” —Douglas Fowkes

“I don’t know what we would do if we didn’t have all this help. After the quake they had a meeting at the Church and asked what everybody needed. Whatever you needed, they would help you get. Everybody was helping everybody.” —Shari Vanlandingham

Nestled in the hills of western Fresno County, Coalinga is normally a peaceful town. A 6.5 earthquake and numerous aftershocks shattered the town’s quiet in May, demolishing buildings and collapsing houses.

With their homes uninhabitable, several Church members set up camp at the Church parking lot. Relief efforts were coordinated from the meetinghouse, where needed repairs were posted on the bulletin board.

“I realized that in a few minutes you could lose everything—your whole house and everything in it—but you’re still the same person. I think more now about the things that really matter.” —Dan McNeece