Friday, February 10, 2012


Yesterday marked the 41st anniversary of the 1971 San Fernando/Sylmar earthquake--"the day all of Los Angeles woke up at the same time"--in which 65 people died. As earthquakes go, it was far from the largest, but for those of us who experienced it, it was an event never to be forgotten.

I was living in North Hollywood at the time, 11 miles from the epicenter near San Fernando/Sylmar. My mother had only recently moved from Rockford, Illinois, to be near me, and had bought a house less than a mile from mine.

I'd been in Los Angeles for more than five years at that point, and had been through several temblors and minor quakes, and was fascinated by the fact that there are several different types. My first was a "gentle swell" quake, like being in a small boat rocked by waves. I was sitting in my living room with a friend when I noticed the hanging light fixture over his head began swinging back and forth. Being a disaster buff, I rather hoped I'd be in a big quake someday. I got what I asked for on February 9, 1971.

At 6:02 that morning, I was, like most of the rest of the city, in bed, asleep. I was awakened by the sound...a deep, indescribable rumbling. I'd never heard anything like it but, like the warning sound of a rattlesnake, you needn't have ever heard it before to know exactly what it was.

First came the sound, and then the though a giant had grabbed the city by its shoulders and was shaking it violently. The worst thing about an earthquake is that you never know, when it starts, how long it's going to last, or how bad it's going to be.

My bedroom looked out over my back yard and swimming pool, and I watched as two feet of water sloshed out of the pool and over the patio and yard. I don't know how long the shaking lasted, but it seemed like a long time. When it stopped, I immediately jumped out of bed, threw on some clothes, and drove to my mother's house.

There was a large post office a block from me, on Lankershim Blvd. As I drove by I saw that the large open garage for employees' cars had collapsed. Postal employees were standing around inexplicably looking up at the what I had no idea, but probably at one of the power transformers that had blown up during the quake. Turning onto Lankershim, a commercial area, I saw that windows of most of the stores were now in the street.

Got to my mom's house to find she was fine but, never having experienced an earthquake before, wasn't quite sure what had happened. "I thought someone was throwing garbage cans at the house," she said. I welcomed her to California.

Within two minutes of walking in the door, her phone rang. It was my aunt from Illinois, saying: "I just heard on the radio you had an earthquake." When she hung up and Mom tried to call other relatives in Illinois to tell them we was okay, the line was dead, and we remained without phone service for two days.

Reports were coming in on damage. Several buildings at the sprawling San Fernando Veterans Administration Hospital had collapsed...killing 53 people, we found out later. Two 5-story enclosed stairwells of the brand new Olive View Hospital in Sylmar had fallen away from the building leaving, with no power for the elevators, no way out...3 died there. The dam holding back the Van Norman reservoir was so badly damaged it was feared it would collapse, and 80,000 people living beneath it were ordered to evacuate.

Several new housing developments in the area featuring tri-levels were severely damaged when the two-story section split away from the one-story section. (The house I later bought in Lakeview Terrace, close to San Fernando, a tri-level, had had its driveway forced upward, making it impossible to open.)

As I've said, by comparison to other earthquakes, the San Fernando/Sylmar quake was relatively small. But those who experienced its power and damage first hand will never forget it.

A few weeks after the quake I had occasion to go to Las Vegas on business, and I found how easy it was, whenever a heavy truck drove by or there were some unexpected noise, to spot people who had been in Los Angeles on February 9.

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please take a moment to check out his website ( and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs ( ).


Kage Alan said...

And you insist you haven't led an interesting life. Shame on you... I've experienced a very minor earthquake in Michigan before, but nothing like what you went through.

Dorien/Roger said...

I think the problem with not thinking one's life is interesting is that whatever our experiences may be, we find it hard to put them in full perspective. They happened to us, therefore they are just part of our lives.

Too often "interesting" is more in the eye of the beholder than in the one experiencing the event.