Story Time: Facts You Probably Don’t Know About Me (Part 4)

Jerry Wyant

Story Time: Facts You Probably Don’t Know About Me (Part 4)

I was trapped in earthquake damage
I provided key evidence in the largest court case resulting from the stock market crash of 1987

I like to tell stories about myself. I have a blog. It only makes sense that I would use my blog for these stories. Since I have more stories than I have room for in one blog post, I am going to tell these stories over time and over several posts.


I was trapped in earthquake damage

No, I wasn’t buried under tons of debris or anything like that. But I was trapped. I couldn’t leave work because of the earthquake damage. I was stuck on the 51st floor of a downtown L.A. office building. I had no way out.

The earthquake struck a few minutes before 8:00 am on October 1, 1987. It is now known as the Whittier Narrows earthquake, named for its previously-unknown fault line. The quake measured 5.9 on the Richter scale. This was hardly the “big one”, but it was still a significant event. At the time, it was the largest earthquake to hit Los Angeles since 1971. What made it so intense to me was the fact that the Whittier Narrows fault line passed directly underneath the building where I was working at the time.

The date and the time of day are significant to the story. My office co-workers were all arriving to start their workday at 8 o’clock. On most days, I would be arriving at that time also. But my specific job required me to be at work early on the first day of every month. I had already been at work for a couple of hours.

I was making my monthly rounds, traveling between the 49th and 52nd floors, when the earthquake hit. I had just collected some papers on the 49th floor, and began heading back towards my office on the 51st floor. I started to push the elevator button, but at the last second I changed my mind and decided to walk up the two flights of stairs instead. Lucky for me, because that elevator never reached the 51st floor.

I was only about two steps from the 51st floor when the earthquake hit. I had been in numerous earthquakes before, but never anything like this. I described the event as being like an oversized King Kong had picked up the building and started shaking it up and down. The up and down motion was the result of the fault line being directly under the building.

The building lost power. The phone lines went dead. Numerous aftershocks all gave me the same impression of King Kong shaking the building. Some of my co-workers had made it to work by the time the earthquake hit. Some of them did not arrive. I learned that when a significant earthquake hits, partitions automatically close off entry into the building from the underground parking garage. This is a safety measure. Anybody who was in the garage at the time of the earthquake could not enter the building.

The backup generator kicked in. We had power, but not enough to run the equipment we needed to use in order to conduct the day’s business. We were shut down. We also had no air conditioning. Not having air conditioning in a skyscraper in L.A. – with no ability to open windows – is not pleasant. But we had more important things to worry about. The phones started working, but only sporadically. At first, some incoming calls got through. After that, incoming calls were deliberately cut off in order to free up lines for emergencies. Some calls could go out, but none could come in.

One woman who was a co-worker had been sitting on the toilet when the earthquake hit. She said she started sliding across the floor. She didn’t realize it was an earthquake. She thought she was having a dizzy spell.

Before any calls could go out, some people panicked because they could not get in contact with family members. We knew that there was widespread damage – it was way too early to find out how widespread – and parents were concerned about the safety of their children. We were given one opportunity to get out. The elevators were not working, but anybody who was desperate to get out and check on the safety of their families would be allowed to leave by the stairwell. Once inside the stairwell, the only way out is either to go onto the roof of the building – and nobody wanted to be trapped there – or to walk to the ground floor, 50 stories down. Two women who were worried about their small children took that route. The rest of us stayed.

Before they cut off incoming calls, one co-worker took a call from the husband of one of the co-workers who hadn’t arrived in the office. He calmly re-assured the worried husband that he had seen her in the parking garage, and she probably got trapped in the garage when the partition came down to block entrance in the building. “Don’t worry”, he calmly said, “she is on her way home now.”

But she wasn’t on her way home. None of us knew at the time that she was trapped with other people on the elevator – the same elevator that I almost waited for. People who were on the elevator at the time the earthquake hit did not know what was going on. When you are on an elevator headed for the top of a high-rise building, you can’t feel an earthquake. The elevator car shakes, but it can shake that way for numerous reasons. Those who were trapped on the elevator pressed the emergency button. But they had to wait 8 hours to get out. They didn’t know why help didn’t arrive much sooner. Only after they finally got out were they told that they simply had to wait their turn because people were trapped in elevators all across the city. I can’t imagine what that was like. During those years, I was driving to work in Los Angeles rush hour traffic because I would get claustrophobia riding on crowded buses. I couldn’t handle a crowded elevator for 8 hours.

We were stuck at work. We couldn’t leave. Our office was effectively shut down. Outside communication was virtually nonexistent. We had no air conditioning. Every time an aftershock hit, it felt eerily like the main quake. I worried that the first one had jarred something loose, and the aftershocks would finish it off. I did find out later that a large chuck of concrete had fallen from the top of the building to the ground below. Luckily, nobody was standing under it at the time. I walked past the file room, and…

Wow, the file room! We were an accounting department. An orderly file room was kind of important to us. But we hadn’t really given it much thought. I walked past it, and everything was upside down. It would take a long time to put everything back in order. Helen Penner was already working on it. Helen was a company Vice President who had already set a date for her retirement. Our daily business had been shut down. She could have ordered us to spend our time putting the file room back together. It isn’t as if we had something more important to do. But she didn’t even tell us that there was a problem. She quietly decided to work on it herself. Once we saw the problem, we gladly pitched in to help.

My personal worries that day were about my baseball card collection back home. I lived alone in an apartment in Placentia, some 40 to 45 miles away by freeway. I did worry about damage at home, but as the day wore on I began to feel that there wouldn’t me much structural damage that far away from downtown L.A. But I had been in the process of sorting through my collection of over 50,000 baseball cards. I had all of them in large stacks, leaning up against the wall in my spare bedroom. Surely they would be all over the place, and hundreds of hours of work would go down the drain.

We were kept there until the normal closing time. The people who had been trapped on the elevator finally got out, but the elevators hadn’t been declared safe to use. When the time came, we all had to leave together via the service elevator. That was my one and only experience on the service elevator, and I wouldn’t recommend it. The service elevator is nothing more than a platform used for moving large pieces of equipment and furniture in high rise buildings. It isn’t enclosed like a normal elevator. It reminded me of a scaffold used by window washers, except that it is indoors and it is designed to move straight up and down.

On my way home, I thought mainly about what kind of damage I would see in my apartment. One section of the freeway going home was closed, and I had to take a detour. An overpass at a freeway crossroads was damaged, and concrete had fallen onto the freeway below. I was very impressed when I saw first-hand that before the next morning’s rush hour, the damage had been propped up, new lanes had been painted, and all lanes of traffic were open.

To my pleasant surprise, I reached home and found out that none of my baseball cards had been knocked over. I searched my apartment for earthquake damage. The only thing I noticed was that the needle on the arm of my turntable had come out of its lock position.

I long considered October of 1987 to be one of the worst months of my life. I was 30 years old at the time. In October, my lifetime friend and former college roommate Jeff Pierson was fatally injured in a head-on automobile accident. The top boss at work died from a heart attack, setting off a chain of events which took me from being on a corporate fast-track to the top to having to quit the job altogether for health reasons. The stock market crashed on the 19th of that month (Black Monday), a major event in my line of work. Perhaps the earthquake on the first day of that month was an omen.

A couple of months later, my department moved away from downtown. My company had outgrown its allotted office space, and my department moved to Brea, California. This was near my home. I would no longer have to deal with L.A. rush hour traffic on a daily basis. I wouldn’t even have to get on a freeway in order to get to work. But on those rare occasions when business would take me to the downtown office, I would get a creepy feeling about earthquakes. I decided that I prefer being close to the ground.

This is a photo I took of the office building in this story. The logo is for Security Pacific National Bank; it has since been changed to Bank of America

Below is a view from my office on the 51st floor, looking down towards street level


I provided key evidence in the largest court case resulting from the stock market crash of 1987

My phone rang at work one day in 1988. On the other end of the line was a U.S. District Judge in Philadelphia who was hearing a case on the 1987 stock market crash. He told me that he had put the case on hold until I could provide him with key pieces of information relevant to the case. The clear implication was that I needed to act quickly to prevent unnecessary delay of this important trial. But whatever information I provided to the judge had to be 100% accurate.

This was an important court case. Those of us in the investment industry were aware that such a case was going on. It was the biggest case, in terms of the amount of money at stake, resulting from the stock market crash of 1987.

The case involved one specific floor specialist at the New York Stock Exchange. Floor specialists are investors who are legally required to provide stability in times of temporary instability. On Black Monday, the NYSE had been forced to shut down amid a free-fall in stock prices. The market had crashed. On Tuesday, the market reopened. Prices continued to tumble. The stock market didn’t bottom out until December, although the free-fall aspect of it had been halted earlier than that.

On a normal trading day at the NYSE, the opening price would be the same price as the previous day’s closing price. But Tuesday, October 20, 1987 was not a normal trading day. The stock market had shut down on Monday in the midst of a free-fall, and it was up to the floor specialists to set the opening prices the next day. This was significant because my company had outstanding market orders on the books to buy stock at the opening price on behalf of our clients. In other words, the price we had to pay was whatever price the floor specialist decided to set.

After trading opened, market supply and demand would set the price. But any outstanding orders to purchase at the opening price would take place at the price set by the floor specialist, not at the price set by supply and demand. For one specific stock in question, our company paid about $47 per share on behalf of our clients – because that was the price set by the floor specialist. But the market price immediately fell to about $32 per share. The court case was all about recovering $15 per share for our clients.

My job was to provide information for the court regarding which clients purchased shares before, during, and after the opening of trade on October 20; what prices were paid at specific times of the day; and how many shares were involved for each client.

We won that case. My next job was to provide our accountants and the clients’ custodial banks with information regarding how much settlement money belonged in each account. That information was easily available to me because of the research I had done on behalf of the court.

This is part four in a series of stories I like to tell about my life. Here are links to the first three parts:

Part One: I performed on stage with Bob Hope; I held up a flight leaving La Guardia Airport in New York; I played basketball with Bruce Jenner

Part Two: I huddled with the Kansas City Chiefs throughout one game; I was the star of the Missouri Boys’ State talent show

Part Three: I was filmed in a hit movie with Danny DeVito; I was chased by a bear in the mountains

Jerry Wyant