Amid chaos and destruction of Northridge earthquake, LAPD cop recounts rescue of missing 85-year-old
Mrs. B, the man's wife, told a watch commander her husband left their home to check on a business he owned; she hadn't seen him since
The following is excerpted from "Unwavering Honor" by veteran police officer Jim Calams, which takes readers on a ridealong as he responds to calls while working as an officer in Phoenix, Arizona, and Los Angeles in the '80s and '90s. You can order the book on Amazon here. All proceeds from the book support the Stephanie Lynne Calams Memorial Scholarship Foundation. Calams is currently working on writing his second book, slated to debut in 2022.
People who live in California grow accustomed to small earthquakes. Although the state experiences an estimated 10,000 per year, most register so small on the Richter scale, they go unnoticed.
On January 17, 1994, we noticed. This day remains etched in my mind, an unforgettable moment embedded there forever. The Northridge Earthquake.
At approximately 4:31 a.m., registering a severe 6.7, the earthquake centered in Northridge, striking Southern California with earth-shattering aftershocks that far outweighed the physical aftermath. With a revised death toll of 72 and thousands injured, the damage amounted to $20 billion and over $40 billion in economic loss. Experts still consider it the costliest earthquake disaster in U.S. history.
At home that early morning, asleep with my wife, our home shook violently. No warning. Not the way anyone wants to wake up, either. My body hit the floor – my wife also thrown from our bed. For a startled moment, my mind grasped for an explanation. Within seconds, she and I regained our composures, grabbed our children, and ran to the front yard.
During those moments, the earth continued to shake harshly. Our children clung to us, crying, shaking. Terror and confusion filled their little eyes. My wife and I did our best to put on a brave front for them, but as the earth vibrated below our feet, the same fear lurked within us. Every time we thought the earthquake stopped, an aftershock rolled through the ground and traveled up to our brains, leaving us afraid to move, yet wondering if we should escape with our kids.
Less than a minute later, although it felt like an hour, the ground finally grew still. We checked for structural damage within our home, and by the grace of God, all appeared OK.
Fast forward to early morning. My landline telephone rang.
I looked at my wife. “Wow! We have phone service?”
Neither of us thought to check the phone, assuming it didn’t work after the earthquake. I answered it.
Dave Rossi, my watch commander from the West Los Angeles station, skipped any pleasantries. “Calams get into work ASAP! If you can’t get out, the Palmdale Sheriff station’s helicopter will fly you and other officers in the area down to Ramirez Street. We’ll pick you up from there.”
The Palmdale/Lancaster neighborhood had quite a few police officers living in my area of LA county. Ramirez Street houses the LAPD air unit station and police helicopters.
Rather than fly out, I decided to try driving. I left home at 9 a.m., thinking it wouldn’t take much longer than usual to get there.
The 14 Freeway collapsed at the 5 Freeway intersection where I needed to go south on the 5 Freeway. Flipping a U-turn and heading down the shoulder of the 14, the California Highway Patrol stopped me. They ultimately escorted me out of the area, where I was able to get to the 405 Freeway and make my way to the west LA station.
“Oh my God. What a cluster fuck this is!” I yelled in my car. Despite the earliness of the day, the sky smothered the area with darkness – as dark as nighttime with no street lights on, people driving, and acting crazy.
Almost two-and-a-half hours later, I reached the station. Meeting with a cadre of officers, we waited impatiently for our assignments.
“Calams and Godinez, you have the ramp and the top of the bridge at Mulholland Drive at the 405. Get a black and white and get out there ASAP,” explained Rossi.
The choice for my partner, Adolf Godinez, pleased me. A great guy, we worked together before on the mid pm shift at West LA.
Godinez shook his head. “You believe this shit, Jimbo?”
“I know, brother. It took me forever to get here.”
As we drove through the streets, I entered a hyper-vigilant state, the hair on my arms prickling. Erie. The darkness closed in around our squad car. Only our headlights pierced the black. Little to no movement on the street.
My mind retraced all the apocalyptic movies I ever watched. The gloom and sense of despair pressed in, leaving my chest feeling heavy. Surely the end of the world was coming. At least it seemed that way as we drove in silence. I sensed Godinez felt it as deeply as I did.
I swallowed hard, constantly checking my rearview mirrors, half expecting a zombie-like creature to pop out from the shadows. My rabbit-paced heart didn’t help the situation. I took deep breaths, calming myself, yet remained at full alert.
After what seemed like hours, in reality not long at all, we arrived at our assigned location and blocked the area. No person or vehicle could enter. The bridge sustained major damage and had the possibility of total collapse. Our assignment – protect unsuspecting people from being on the bridge if it went down.
We took our position, and the occasional driver came by, wanting to pass. We turned them away. Some were nice about it, understanding and thankful. Others – complete assholes.
The whole time, the RTO (dispatcher) kept putting out a broadcast for a missing elderly man. He had been missing for over eight hours. We listened as the RTO relayed that Mr. B was an 85-year-old man, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He was driving a brown Lincoln Town Car.
Mrs. B, the wife, told our watch commander that her husband left their home at 4 p.m. to check on a business he owned. She hadn’t seen him since.
We heard from the watch commander. The wife was hysterical, calling the station numerous times. “She kept begging us, ‘Find him please! Find him. I love him so much.’ Poor woman. She’s beside herself.”
As the repeated bulletin kept coming over the radio, Godinez and I looked at each other throughout the night. After multiple times of hearing it, we both said what we’d been thinking. “I suspect this guy is no longer amongst the living.”
Around midnight, Sergeant Mitch stopped by our location. “How are you doing?”
We chatted a moment, then he asked, “Hey, you guys been hearing about the missing elderly man?”
“Yeah. It’s a damn shame, Sarge. Not looking good for him.” Both Godinez and I felt bad and hated saying the words. As cops, we tended to look at life realistically more than with hope. Anyone missing that long – not a good sign. As much as we wanted to hope, we knew the statistics.
As Mitch and Godinez continued chatting, my mind drifted back to the days when I attended the Police Academy.
My drill instructor, Todd Rheingold, repeatedly told us in our class, “One never quits, one never gives up. You never quit. Never!”
I didn’t want to quit on the old man, but facts don’t lie. We lived reality, and it screamed the odds against an 85-year-old man surviving this catastrophe.
Sergeant Mitch’s voice pulled me back. He wanted to give us a lunch break. “I heard there was a place open in the West Valley area. Go take a break, get some food.”
I looked at Mitch. “Hey, we’re going to look for this guy.”
Godinez looked at me, his eyes wide. “Are you kidding, Jimbo?”
“No buddy. Let’s go find this guy.”
Sergeant Mitch shook his head and smiled. “If you find him, I will write you the best commendation. Not only that, I’ll buy you both a steak dinner.”
“Deal, Sarge.” We all knew he might be dead, but better for his wife to know than wonder. Someone needed to locate Mr. B. “Let’s roll, Adolf.”
As we winded through the dark streets, we headed down the hill into the valley area of Los Angeles – the West Valley area, to be specific.
Around 20 minutes went by as we searched the area for this brown Lincoln Town Car. Suddenly Godinez said, “Hey, let’s go down Ventura Blvd. It’s a main drag. Maybe the guy is around there.”
We started driving down Ventura Blvd. Not quite the same ghost town as earlier, many cars traveled on the street, along with some foot traffic from local residents.
As Godinez drove down Ventura, I spotted a LA Sheriff’s deputy car talking to another person. The deputies ultimately drove off.
Even with the area in darkness, I thought, “Shit, that looks like a Lincoln chatting with the deputy.” Could it be our guy?
“Adolf, turn around back where the deputy was.”
“I think we found our missing man, brother.”
“Bull shit. Come on. A deputy just stopped there. It can’t be him.”
I had a gut feeling. “No, turn this car around.”
Regardless of his doubts, my partner complied.
We pulled up behind the brown Lincoln, and I activated the red lights. Adolf sounded the horn. About to pull away from the curb, the Lincoln stopped.
I keyed my mic and cleared the dispatcher. “Verifying California license number for missing elderly man.”
The dispatcher’s voice returned, filled with excitement. “Unit 802, that is correct. Do you have the vehicle?”
“Yes ma'am. Show us code 6 with that vehicle and notify the watch commander. We’re stepping out for inspection.”
Godinez and I flanked the vehicle, contacting the driver. The elderly driver appeared alive and well, although mystified.
“Mr. B, are you OK?”
“Yes sir, I am.” Tears welled up in his clouded eyes. “But I’m lost.”
My heart wanted to wrap my arms around the old man, but I refrained. “It’s OK, sir. My partner and I are going to get you home. Come with me in my car, and my friend, Adolf, will drive yours.”
A single tear rolled down his wrinkled cheek. “OK, sir, thank you. I am sure my wife is worried.”
I choked back a lump. “Yes, she is.”
As we left the area, I cleared on the radio. “Unit 802. Show us en route to Mr. B’s residence. Advise his wife. He is alive and well and can’t wait to see her.”
“802, roger.” Over the radio, I detected incredulous relief in the dispatcher’s tone.
The watch commander cleared me over the radio to switch to our talk Channel 2. I switched.
Rossi came on. “I just can’t believe that guy is OK. Are you sure?”
“Yes, sir. He’s fine. A bit tired, but he will be fine.” I shared his surprise, still barely believing we found him alive.
“Great work by both of you. His wife is ecstatic. I just hung up the phone with her.”
“Roger that, sir.”
As Godinez and I approached the home of Mr. and Mrs. B, she came running out of the house. Heck, I almost hit her with the black and white.
She was crying and smiling at the same time. “Oh, you're home. You're home. I've missed you so much.” She kept repeating the words while they hugged and kissed repeatedly.
After several minutes, we accompanied the couple into their home. Mrs. B hugged and kissed Godinez and me several times, thanking us. “Let me get you some beer. You want some beer?” Not a question of want. We were still on duty. “No ma'am. We are good, thank you.”
We so often saw tragedy, and that night could have ended so differently. My heart burst with pride for following my instincts and joy over the reunion. Such a great experience in my career as a Los Angeles police officer to see such amazing people have a happy ending. They loved each other immensely. Watching the two of them together, we had no doubt about that.
As we continued our meeting with the couple, getting further information for our report, the two of them showed us their forearms. Etched there crudely, numbers made my skin prickle. These two fine people survived the Auschwitz death camps during WWII.
The woman stroked her husband’s forearm. “Do you know what this is, officers?”
“Yes ma’am, we sure do,” we replied simultaneously.
I added, “We are so happy you both are reunited again.”
We said our goodbyes, but the kisses and hugs continued, which was fine with us. Their gratitude and show of affection left us smiling, happy to reunite someone on a day when so many received news of loved ones not returning home. I basked in the afterglow of the incredible outcome for this family.
Before we ended our shift of 12 hours in the daylight of a new morning, we made it a point to seek out Sergeant Mitch.
“Don’t worry,” he responded. “I’ll make good on my promise.” Later, he did – with an awesome commendation and a steak dinner to boot.
Mrs. B wrote a letter to the mayor of Los Angeles, resulting in a mayoral commendation for both Godinez and me.
Mr. and Mrs. B persevered through their imprisonment during WWII. Perhaps that same tenacity kept them holding on that night, refusing to let go of hope. Almost 30 years later, that lesson remains rooted in my heart and mind – a lesson I hope to remember forever.
As I reflected on that night and the commendations going forward, the one thing that continued to replay in my head came from my academy drill instructor. Todd’s voice saying, “You never quit. Never.”
We didn't quit, Todd. We never quit.