By KG MacGregor
Nine miles from the Endicott Mall in his second floor office, Scott Rutherford eyed his senior marketing student. The young man had shown a great deal of ingenuity in his earlier work, but Scott was very disappointed with the latest assignment. "Your plan was quick and dirty, just like too many product launches in the real world," he scowled. "Remember Mr. Caldwell, your marketing budget includes research and development. In your project, you designed a product launch without putting your product in front of potential customers. If you guess wrong, you waste a quarter of a million dollars."
Justin Caldwell looked first at his professor, then at the floor. "Dr. Rutherford, I can do better. Id appreciate the chance to rework this, and resubmit it," he pleaded hopefully.
After a few moments of contemplation, the professor answered. "Mr. Caldwell, whats important here is that you learn to do this correctly. But if I agree to evaluate your project a second time, I want to be assured that its your best effort." Seeing the relief on the young mans face, Scott continued, "You should review Chapter Four of Paddocks book. It deals with..."
As he reached to retrieve Paddocks book from the shelf above, the professor lost his footing on the shaking floor and fell across his desk as though struck by an unseen force. At the same moment, Paddocks book and dozens of others crashed to the floor as the windows rattled and burst. Practicing what he had learned in his youth, Justin jumped back to brace himself in the doorway as fiberglass panels shook free from the ceiling.
Nearly a minute passed before the tremors stopped. The student, now pale and wide-eyed, stepped forward to help his teacher stand. "Are you all right?" he asked.
"Yeah, thanks," Scott murmured. He stood up from the desk and looked around at the total disarray in his office.
"That was some powerful shake!" Justin said queasily. "We must have been right at the epicenter."
Looking out the open window across the LA basin, Scott replied "Well, if we werent, God help the people who were."
His first thoughts were of the safety of his young son. If they were at home, they should be safe, since they lived near the water. Guiltily, he thought next of his wife.
Skye remembered the floor shaking and shuddering, books falling and the shelves being wrested from their bolts and crashing to the floor. A mighty jolt had thrown her from her stool across the counter and after another thrust, the lights in the store flickered twice and went dark. The clerk had scrambled for the entrance, where the last of the natural light poured in from the atrium, forgetting the dark-haired woman at the back of the store. No sooner had she reached the lower concourse than it lurched skyward, hurling her across a rippling plane. Heavy plastic panels floated from the skylight, and she had scurried for the cover of an overturned candy kiosk.
Now, the earth was finally still. Gradually, moans, shouts and a baby cry began to fill the air, and Skye struggled for her footing. She turned instinctively toward her shop, confused and disoriented. Where Binders had once stood, computers and electronic gadgets were strewn about and smashed. Radio Shack had been located directly above the bookstore.
Skye crawled to her feet and began to climb across the piles of debris toward the south end of the mall.
"Annnnhhh!" the woman grunted, struggling against the bookcase that pinned her firmly to the floor. Only minutes before, Anna had been reading the book jacket for The Case of the Orphaned Bassoonists when a deep rumbling suddenly consumed the moment. In a matter of seconds, the floor had simply fallen away, and she was enveloped in blackness.
Breathing heavily, the tall woman regrouped for another push. "Unnnnnhhhhhh!" she groaned again, moving the bookcase only an inch or two from her chest. With every effort, more of the books that were somehow bracing the heavy bookcase fell away, leaving her left knee to bear even greater weight under a lower shelf. Her twisting and pulling had only exacerbated her predicament, and now her knee was throbbing and firmly trapped in a vise.
"Help! Somebody!" Anna heard no one. Where is everyone? Where am I? "In deep trouble," she answered herself aloud.
The worst part was that it was completely dark.
No, scratch that. The worst part was the throbbing of her head right above her eye. Rolling onto her side, Lily traced with her forefinger the rim of the wide gash responsible for the sticky mess on the left side of her face. Remembering her earlier lament to the proverbial heavens, Lily muttered, "I was only frustrated it wasnt intended to be a challenge!" But, she had received her answer to the rhetorical question when the floor beneath her began to shake. Lily had reached to brace herself in the doorway, and was suddenly flung head first into the angled mirrors on two walls of the fitting room. The accompanying boom was deafening, and was followed by grinding and popping, as the drywall crumbled all around into dust and ragged shards and the newly exposed metal supports twisted and bent. A second jolt had rippled the floor and plunged the small space into darkness.
As she had felt the ground give way underneath, her last conscious thought was that the sales clerk had probably already run her debit card, and without moving money from her savings account, her check to Judge Evans was going to bounce.
Lily had no idea how much time had passed while she lay unconscious in the fitting room. She now groped around on the floor hoping to find the top she had intended to purchase earlier. Grasping the cloth from underneath her, the young woman held it to her wound and pressed hard to stop the bleeding. She pulled herself up to a sitting position and reached out to get her bearings. Glass was everywhere. The mirrors, she figured. The floorif it was still the floorwas uneven, and the wall to her right now leaned above her. She knew it was the mirrored wall, as she felt a few of the jagged fragments still attached. Behind her, the place she remembered as the back of the store was a concrete block wall. "Where the hell did that come from?" she asked aloud, not expecting but half hoping to hear a reply. It seemed to Lily that she was still in the fitting room, such as it was. To her left was a wall and she recognized in front of her the splintered texture of the wood from the louvered door. That meant the entrance to the store was past the door and straight ahead.
Where was the light? Hadnt there been an atrium in the center of the mall? She knew she been knocked out for a few minutes, but surely it wasnt evening already.
"Is anybody in here?" Silence.
Louder this time, "Hello! Anybody!" Lily strained to hear another sound. Nothing.
Slowly, she tried to stand. The uneven floor and the low ceiling made it difficult to navigate the darkness, but she picked her way along the edge of the hallway and emerged into what she supposed was the main store. Again, she called out "Anyone here?"
As she continued in the direction of the entrance, the floor became steeper, sloping forward. Racks of clothes had gathered where the floor had buckled, and she lost her balance as her feet tangled in the cloth and metal. The smell of fresh dirt was vaguely present, and Lily realized that the ground had literally broken through the bottom of the store. She knew from 29 years of living in California that she had been near the epicenter of a very significant earthquake. She was indeed lucky to be alive.
Reaching forward, her hand came to rest against a wall of earth. The mall had collapsed, she realized, wondering what had become of all the people who been inside. Was she the only one still inside? Or were the others With alarm, Lily acknowledged the truth: The worst part was that she was trapped.
Art Hanson shed his jacket and rolled up his shirtsleeves. "How much time?" he asked into the air. He nodded as the answer crackled back into the discreetly placed earpiece. "Ill do the background, then we can pull in the eyewitness. Ill track down the scene manager for a follow-up," he stated, the latter referring to the areas emergency services coordinator, who had arrived on the scene a few moments ago, sirens screaming. Loosening his tie, the reporter mussed his hair to give the appearance that he, too, had been working frantically to free those trapped in the fallen building behind him.
Getting his cue, Hansonborn Randall Lyzcienskibegan his report. "Julie, at 12:04 p.m. today, a massive earthquake shook the Los Angeles basin. Were live on the scene at the Endicott Mall here in Culver City. Preliminary indications are that the mall has suffered major damage, and that the second floor may have collapsed onto the lower level in the north wing."
The camera panned the broken structure, zooming in on the north wing with its crumbled exterior and uneven roofline. "I have here with me Skye Steinberg, a clerk at Binders Books on the lower level. Skye, what can you tell us about what happened?"
"It was awful!" the clerk blurted. "Everything shook and the ceiling started to fall. I was near the door when the shaking started, and I was knocked out into the center of the mall. Glass was falling, people were screaming. I was so scared!" The young girls forehead furrowed and her eyes became wide as she recalled the images. "When I turned around, the Radio Shack, the store that was right over us, had fallen to where the bookstore used to be."
The reporter lowered his voice somberly, and followed, "Did you see other people in there? Did everyone get out?"
"It wasnt crowded today." Skyes lip began to quiver as she remembered the kind woman in her store. "But there was one customer in the back of the bookstore. She was tall and beautiful and she had long black hair." Tears welled up and threatened to fall.
"Do you know what happened to her?" the reporter prodded. They were live on the air!
"I didnt see her again. I I dont know I dont think she made it." Skye raised her hand to cover her eyes and started to sob.
Hanson signaled Jane to linger a few more moments on the crying woman, then cleared his throat softly and said "Im Art Hanson for News 26, and well have more later from the Endicott Mall."
Anna was exhausted. She had tried in vain to pull herself from her prison. The shelf now rested firmly on her left leg, its sharp edge digging into the soft tissue around her knee. Her toes had begun to tingle, and she feared that she would soon lose feeling in her lower leg.
The womans repeated cries for help had gone unanswered and she knew with a certainty that she was alone. She wondered what had happened to the orange-haired clerk and then shuddered as she acknowledged the likely truth. Its too soon to panic, she calmed herself. Shed read that a person could survive for several days without food or water, so as long as she had enough air to breathe, the rescuers would probably find her. If they know Im here, she allowed the thought to creep into her consciousness.
"Help! Help! Somebody! Im in here!" She yelled until she was hoarse.
"Well, this would certainly solve all of my problems, and all of Scotts too," she sighed. "Worse things could happen." Trapped, and for the moment out of options, Anna closed her eyes and succumbed to the fatigue she felt.
This wasnt Lilys first experience at being trapped in a dark space. Time had a merciful way of stealing memories from her early childhood, but one she clearly remembered was being locked in a dark closet on several occasions when her mother went out. To this day, Lily slept with a nightlight.
Fighting back the urge to kick at the walls and scream, Lily gathered herself for what she knew would be her strongest test. Im going to get out here if I have to bore through the floor and dig a tunnel.
She couldnt reach the atrium here, so she decided to try to reach it from the adjacent store. Where the floor had fallen, she expected a gap between the wall and the partially collapsed ceiling, or between the wall and the floor. She would crawl or climb, whatever it took.
As she began feeling along the dirt wall to guide her towards the next store, the young woman unknowingly passed within inches of the clerk who had taken her debit card. The total darkness spared Lily the image of her crushed and broken body, and her wide, lifeless eyes.
"Were back here on the scene at the Endicott Mall with emergency services coordinator Philip Bertram. Mr. Bertram, whats the situation here?" Art Hanson asked.
"Well," the official began, "we can confirm that part of the second level on the north wing has collapsed onto the lower level. There are about six or seven stores that are affected, and right now, we dont know how many people were in those stores at the time of the quake."
"Do you have casualties?" Hanson asked eagerly.
"Yes, we do," Bertram replied grimly. "There were over 200 people who were injured, some seriously. Weve sent about 75 to area hospitals."
"Are there still people inside the mall, or have you gotten everyone out?"
"Our crews have been inside the main areas that were able to reach to clear out the survivors. We havent started our sweep yet, but were talking with people who were in the mall at the time to help us determine how many people might be missing. Its pretty dangerous to be in there right now, but were going to do all we can with some of listening equipment that we have. With a quake of this magnitude, were expecting some pretty significant aftershocks. "
"Are there fatalities?" Hanson prodded.
"We have four confirmed fatalities." Bertram paused. "We expect many more."
Two hours and 40 minutes later, Lily had finally found a small opening at the top of the wall and squeezed into what seemed to be a Foot Locker. Athletic shoes, even new ones, had a distinct odor.
If the floor in this new store was even with that of the store she had just left, Lily expected about a seven-foot drop on the other side. Hanging by her fingers, she stretched her toes down to the floor. In truth, she knew that she was still a long way from getting out of this tomb, but even the small progress was exhilarating.
"This would be a good time to change into sensible shoes," she joked aloud. She had lost her own pumps in the fitting room. "My luck, Id find shoes that fit perfectly, and when I finally crawled out of here with all of America watching my miraculous escape, Id be wearing two different colors. Mom would be mortified. I can see her now. No, thats not my daughter!" She laughed at the image. "Earthquake survivor arrested for shoplifting. Details at eleven."
Lily rested a moment when she reached a pile of what seemed like sweat suits and t-shirts. She was exhausted, but she knew she needed to keep moving. It was a roll of the dice whether the aftershocks would free her or bury her deeper.
Anna became vaguely aware of someone talking laughing even. "Hello! Help! Is somebody there?" She was hoarse, and knew her voice wasnt carrying very far. Her left knee was throbbing, and every small movement was met with excruciating pains. She strained to hear a sound, but all was quiet.
Lily groped around the perimeter at the front of the store, finding nothing but earth from the floor to where the ceiling had fallen, a space only four feet high. Crawling along the far wall, she found no gaps between the floor and the wall. Her only hope was that there would be an opening between the wall and the ceiling.
Most likely, the opening would be at the apex of the spot where the floor had fallen so sharply, just as it had been on the opposite wall where she had crawled from the clothing store. To reach the spot, Lily dragged what she imagined was one of those cone-shaped shoe displays to the far wall. It was lightweight, but sturdy, and it had nice little footholds where the shoes usually sat.
Sure enough, the small woman found an opening at the top, but it was going to take all her strength to pull herself up that high. Those hours on the weight machines are going to pay off after all. The wall had cracked neatly in two where the earth below the store had jutted through. The opening Lily managed to find was a small triangle made by the uneven portions of the wall and the straining ceiling. On her third attempt, she managed to get her head and shoulders through the hole. "Finally!" she shouted triumphantly. Pulling herself through, Lily tumbled to the floor in a heap. "Shit!" she said as she clutched her shoulder, which bore the brunt of her fall.
"Please, help me," a womans weak voice called.
Seven hours and 13 minutes after the initial quake, the first aftershock began to rattle the darkened chamber. The shift had caused the shelf to grind against Annas knee, and she passed out from the excruciating pain.
On to Part 3
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