Interviewee: Ken Matson, math teacher at Mt. Carmel High School
Location: San Diego, California, USA
Date: February 15, 2000
The following interview was conducted in San Diego, California, USA. Mr. Ken Matson, a math teacher at Mt. Carmel High School, relates his experiences in the 1997 Whittier earthquake.
H: What is your name?
M: Ken Matson
H: Where do you live?
M: Clairemont, San Diego area, in California.
H: Have you ever been in a natural disaster before?
M: Yes, I was in an earthquake.
H: On what day and at what time did this occur?
M: Mmm, okay, you’re going to make me think about this…It was in 1996 or 1997. It was the so-called Whittier earthquake. I was in Los Angeles…It happened at about 7:40 in the morning. I know it’s that way because classes there started at eight and I was running papers off before class.
H: Ok, and what were you doing at the time?
M: It was a school day, and…I was in one of the interior classrooms running off papers for class that day.
H: Describe what happened.
M: They had been doing work on the roof up on the building, very similar to these buildings. But it sounded like - when somebody walks across the roof you can hear it, stomp stomp stomp - well it sounded like they’d put a huge B-9 tractor on the roof - phooomssh! And nothing moved, it just sounded like somebody put this huge thing - so I stopped and I looked up. Then all of a sudden the walls started to move and the ground started to go up and down and I - my first thought was “did I lock my door, do I have to look after any students” and I didn’t, so I got to the hallway door and looked out into the hallway. The walls were doing S-curves on a break of about 4 feet each way (Matson makes curving motions with his hands) and the end doorways were glass with thick glass windows, and they were going in and out and vibrating and banking about 6 inches in and out each way. And some student was starting to open the door and I was a classroom down and he was opening the door at the end of the building. Before he was done opening the door I went by him…(laughter)…Got out from the overhang and said “Get away from there!” But the ground was shifting; I got outside. They had outdoor basketball hoops, where they had a post and they had a hoop on each side and it were going like (M raises his arm vertically and whips it back and forth)…It was doing this and…
H: Back and forth?
M: Back and forth, going about 8 feet on each side at the top.
M: It had power lines, thick power poles, and the wires were just whipping, off in the distance. Everybody was stopped on the freeway, I remember. It’s totally vivid. I sat down because I was uncomfortable standing.
M: I felt very off-balance. The ground which had always been extremely stable [was] suddenly off balance and I just didn’t know what to do so I sat down and I could feel, by sitting, I could feel the ground moving and shifting.
H: Do you remember what the magnitude of the earthquake was?
M: I think it was a 6.2. I remember seeing pictures later that the place where the epicenter was in Whittier, was about 10 miles away, and there was a home right on the crack. You could actually view from the front yard to the back yard from this hole in this guy’s house. Went through all the walls, and through everything where it just shifted. The house was still standing, but you could see the backyard through the house.
H: And you didn’t have any warning beforehand?
M: Didn’t have any warning, didn’t have any clue. It was a beautiful, beautiful morning.
H: Okay. And what was going through your mind at the time?
M: What the hell’s happening! (chuckles) I’d never felt the earth move or anything. I was like what’s going on? First of all was do I have any responsibilities, and class had not started yet, school hadn’t started yet - I realized I didn’t. Although, you know, we had practiced these fire drills and earthquake drills, [but] where do you go? Who do you go to and who do you report in to and where do you go if - people just sat away from the buildings and sat down and nobody quite knew where to go or what to do. We just got away from the buildings.
H: Were you scared?
M: Yeah. Yes, I was scared…um…yeah.
H: What did you do to protect yourself?
M: I ran out of the building, is what I did. I still remember this kid casually opening the door and I just went right by him - shoooom! And I basically got away from the buildings…tried to find an open space. I knew about standing in doorways and stuff, and actually the aftershock I was in later that week and another earthquake later the next year I stood in the doorway.
H: How long did the earthquake last?
M: The major major movement…it seems like a long time, but I bet it was about twenty seconds. But then the ground kept moving for the next hour. If you sat down you could feel it.
H: What types of things do you think others should do to prepare for natural disasters, like more education in schools, newspaper articles, reports, websites…
M: I think it’s important to be serious about it when you practice these disaster drills...It takes away from class time but people, unless it starts to happen, unless somebody’s been in it, there really - nobody has a sense because they’ve always been safe. But it’s not.
H: Was your view towards life changed in any way after the earthquake?
M: I guess I realized that - it just got me thinking. It didn’t surprise me as much the next time it happened, so I wasn’t taken aback by it. It also made me realize that this could happen, the sort of fatality involved…but I also recognize that I can semi-prepare and be cognizant of what could happen and what I should do.
Matson also relates his experiences with a hurricane in 1994.
M: We were back visiting some family in Miami and we left, went to Tampa, and left on a red-eye flight Saturday night and the hurricane hit Miami Sunday morning where we were staying.
M: [The hurricane] went right over their house. They were in a shelter, and from the highway back to their place was about a ten minute drive. Took them an hour and half to find their home…by the time they got back and everything…nothing was left standing that was above six feet high.
H: Oh gosh.
M: It was just unbelievable. Then, for the next day, they didn’t have services, they didn’t have electricity, they didn’t have anything.