A Reader Writes By Flo Lynn: Then came the dust …

March 11, 2002

I must tell you how one scene televised in New York during 9/11 took me back 62 years to relive one of the scariest moments of my life.

It happened during the earthquake that struck Imperial Valley circa May 1940. I was just a kid, still attending Wilson School. It was a Saturday night and the downtown stores were still open. In those days all of the farmers and their families came to town Saturday nights to socialize. They parked parallel then and Main Street was parked bumper to bumper for four blocks.

I was waiting for my father to get off work at Imperial Hardware where he was manager of the hardware department. My mother was attending a function in San Francisco.

My girlfriend and I had been doing what today is called "hanging out." At 8:30 she started home and I headed down Main Street toward the hardware store, which, drawing upon a fading memory, was in the 500 block of Main. I had no sooner stepped inside the door and was walking past the waist-high glass display case that held the countless little cubicles of nuts and bolts and other hardware when the ground began to shake violently.


The lighting fixtures were swinging violently and suddenly the huge panes of glass that fronted two floors of the store began shattering, sending shards of glass to the store entrance and sidewalk. Some bounced into the front of the store.

Then, when the entire brick front of the store across the street collapsed, the rush of debris and dust — oh, the dust — churned its way into the store and up and down Main Street, stifling the screams of terror that had enveloped El Centro's downtown.

Again I saw that wall of dust and debris, which had grown a hundred fold over the years, this time making its rush from the Trade Center buildings down the streets, chasing after the petrified people trying to escape.

I could smell the dust as I sat transfixed to my television set last September. Dust has a way of settling, but not before it has instilled in its targets that it is bigger than life and has claimed many victims.

Yet, because of its very nature, there are people who are able to survive its all-enveloping cloak of fear by protecting their faces and riding out the dust storm. Desert people know that. New Yorkers don't.

As I recall, El Centro lost three of its residents to the quake and the town felt lucky that not more damage was done. In a matter of relatively short time, things got back to normal, but it was years before I could step into an elevator.

In those days, kids were not comforted by teams of counselors. We had to rough it out. The first words Dad spoke to me after the roller coaster stopped was "That was quite a ride, wasn't it?" I would rather have had a hug.

I grew up in El Centro, graduated from Central High in 1948 and was studying my way through junior college when I seized the opportunity of a lifetime — to become California's youngest society editor. I signed on with the Post-Press at the tender age of "just barely 18," thus cutting my teeth on a long career in newspapers.

Today, I'm thousands of miles away from El Centro, now residing in Ohio. But I'm fortunate enough to still be writing (the senior citizens news) for a daily newspaper and I can thank those fine newspaper editors who helped me launch my 52-year career for this.

>> FLO LYNN lives in Canton, Ohio, and works for the nearby Massillon Independent newspaper.

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