Monday, February 9, 2015

Six Interesting Facts About the 1971 Sylmar Earthquake

SYLMAR - It seemed from summer 1965 until 1971 it was a chaotic time in Southern California. There were the Watts Riots, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy at The Ambassador Hotel, Charles Manson, the Chicano Moratorium in East Los Angeles, the ongoing destruction of the original Bunker Hill, the Sunset Strip curfew riots, George Putnam not sure if he wants to work at KTLA or KTTV, massive brush fires, and of course, seemingly to top it all off, the Earth shaking below our feet.


 photo CAoverpass1971.jpg
Collapse of I-5 overpass. A similar scene would be repeated in 1994. Author unknown; photograph in public domain. 

It was on February 9, 1971, when an earthquake fault not believed to have been a threat unleashed one of the worst damaging earthquakes in modern Southern California, in what became known as The Sylmar Earthquake.


A film by The President's Office of Emergency Preparedness along with The Defense Civil Preparedness Agency, complete with early 1970s PSA dramatic music, on the 1971 earthquake.

Here are six interesting facts about The Sylmar Earthquake you may never have known about.

1 - The 1971 Earthquake Is Holding Up New Development In Hollywood

If you have been following the news concerning new proposed developments of residential and commercial high-rise buildings around the Capital Records building in Hollywood, known as the Millennium Hollywood project, you know the proposed developments are now delayed and ensnared in controversy, because of where The Hollywood Fault may or may not be, and that delay is a result of the 1971 earthquake.

How so?

The Alquist-Priolo Earthquake Fault Zoning Act is causing the holdup and controversy in Hollywood. The Alquist-Priolo Act, according to the California Geological Survey, "is to prevent the construction of buildings used for human occupancy on the surface trace of active faults."

Alquist-Priolo came to be a state law as a result of the 1971 earthquake. The 1971 earthquake showed the destructive power of extensive surface fault ruptures, which damaged many homes and buildings right atop or very near the fault-line. Lawmakers in Sacramento realized this sort of thing will be a problem in the next major earthquake with many buildings already built on or very near faults, and thus a law was created to prevent new construction on and very near earthquake fault-lines. The law also requires real estate agents to inform potential building owners that property they may be thinking of buying is built on or very near a fault-line

 photo Sylmar-1971-house-e1385170660874.jpg
As dramatically illustrated in this damaged Sylmar home this is what happens when a building is built on the surface trace of an active fault after that fault ruptures. Photograph by USGS; in public domain.

Today in Hollywood private developers, the City of Los Angeles, the California Geological Survey, private geologists hired by the developers and Hollywood residents opposed to this new development, are all trying to say just where The Hollywood Fault is located. If The Hollywood Fault lays atop one of these proposed projects, as new studies show it just may be, then The Alquist-Priolo Act could prevent a new building in Hollywood from being built.

Not too long ago the California Geological Survey introduced new mapping of The Hollywood Fault. 

2 - Two Seconds Made All The Difference

The 1971 earthquake was a massive disaster resulting in collapsed freeways, destroyed homes, and way too many ruined lives. Yet, according to geologists, this disaster was only seconds away from being a really bad disaster to a historic catastrophic disaster.

One of the big stories resulting from the earthquake was the massive evacuation of 80,000 people when the lower Van Norman Dam sustained major damage. With large aftershocks occurring, including a magnitude 5.8 shortly after the mainshock, there was great fear the dam would collapse. So a mass evacuation was underway as engineers, working nearly nonstop, were able to drain part of the dam and save the day.

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Severe damage of the lower Van Norman Dam following the earthquake that came perilous close to flooding part of The Valley. Photograph by USGS; in public domain.

Just how close did the Van Norman Dan come to collapsing? According to California Geology, April/May 1971, "Had shaking of the endangered reservoirs continued for 2 seconds more, it has been estimated that there would have been no time to evacuate those below."

Had the shaking gone on for those two seconds more a UCLA study claimed thousands could have been killed if the Van Norman Dam failed.

As a result of this near catastrophic event all dams in California were reevaluated and retrofitted.

The retrofitting did its job as in the Northridge Earthquake the Van Norman Dam had no serious damage.

3 - The Epicenter Was NOT in Sylmar And The Actual Size Of The Quake Really Was...?

While this event that morning in 1971 will forever be known as The Sylmar Earthquake the actual epicenter was in the San Gabriel Mountains above The Valley. Much of the spectacular and devastating damage was in the Sylmar area and "The Sylmar Earthquake" was a name the media latched onto. Much of the same happened in 1994 when it was revealed the actual epicenter was in Reseda rather than Northridge.

 photo Earthquake_Documentary_1973_Crushed_Chevy-500x335.jpg
A powerful photograph showing the destructive, deadly force of Mother Nature. This is believed to be the I-210/I-5 interchange, and, sadly, those in Chevrolet did not survive. Author unknown; photograph in public domain.

As for the the actual size of the earthquake, well, the United States Geological Survey puts the magnitude of this earthquake at M6.6, which for all intents and purposes has been deemed the "official magnitude" of The Sylmar Earthquake. However, other institutions, such as universities and geological groups from other countries, have put this earthquake as low as M6.5, and as high as M6.7.

4 - The Charles Manson Trial Continued Just Hours After the Earthquake

On January 27. 1971, in downtown L.A. the jury in the Charles Manson trial returned verdicts of "Guilty" for Mr. Manson and three "family members" for the Tate-LaBianca murders. A few days later the penalty phase commenced, which the jury, who had been sequestered during the trial at The Ambassador Hotel, would decide if Mr. Manson and "the family members" would receive life imprisonment or the death penalty. 

On the morning the Earth shook lead prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, as told in his bestseller book about the trial, Helter Skelter, thought members of "the family" were trying to break into his house with all the shaking and noise going on. That was not an unfounded fear as Mr. Bugliosi, the judge overseeing the trial and many other people involved in The Manson Trial received death threats, and soon had 24-hour protection during the trial.

Schools were closed for the day, as were other businesses (some of that was probably due to the fact dozens of schools and homes were severely damaged), but amazingly, and curiously, for The Manson Trial it was business as usual. What is most amazing about this is the trial was held at the historical Los Angeles County Hall of Justice building, which was deemed unsafe and essentially abandoned immediately right after the 1994 Northridge Earthquake.

 photo Hall_of_Justice_ca1939.jpg
While not a 1971 view of the L.A. County Hall of Justice this photograph, circa 1940, was too good to pass up. Author unknown; photograph in public domain.

The Hall of Justice has been undergoing rehabilitation for a few years, and it is expected to be brought back into service in all its glory in 2015.

5 - A Record We Hope Is Never Broken

One grim statistic of the 1971 earthquake we hope is never broken in the next major Southern California earthquake (yes, there will be a next time) is this, The Sylmar Earthquake had more deaths than the Northridge Earthquake. Thus making it the deadest earthquake in modern L.A. history.

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USGS_-_1971_San_Fernando_earthquake_-_Collapse_of_four_buildings_at_the_Veterans_Hospital.jpg
USGS photograph of collapse of San Fernando Veterans Administration Hospital where the majority of earthquake deaths occurred. Photograph in public domain.

The deadliest earthquake in Southern California history was the 1933 Long Beach Earthquake (which actually had an epicenter in Newport Beach).

6 - David Horowitz and Tom Brokaw Were The Lone TV Voices After the Shock

During the shaking power was knocked out, and the sun was not quite out yet, which, like the Northridge Earthquake, brought much of the L.A. Basin into utter darkness. Realizing a major event had just happened, and perhaps being a bit close to the epicenter in Burbank, KNBC reporter David Horowitz (known for his Fight Back segments, and not to be confused with a political pundit of the same name) went outside the darken NBC Studios on Alameda Avenue, and sitting on nothing more than a bar-stool he just began talking about the earthquake to those viewers who's power had not been knocked out (or those watching with those big, bulky portable televisions powered by a half-dozen batteries). Being in a darken lot made for dramatic live television. Joining Mr. Horowitz shortly after he went on the air in that darken Burbank lot was then local KNBC reporter Tom Brokaw. For a time after the earthquake Mr. Horowitz and Mr. Brokaw were providing the only live television coverage of the earthquake.


Mr. Horowitz and Mr. Brokaw attributed much of their early reporting to news reports from radio stations, KFWB, KGIL and KNX.

 photo KGIL.jpg
The cover of a LP put out by KGIL, which on 1260 AM was The Valley's radio station, which featured various airchecks of their earthquake coverage on February 9. The album is in limited press and is considered a collectors item.

As odd as it may seem today given the current nature of L.A. television news (where the slightest raindrop brings on "STORM WATCH TEAM COVERAGE"), KNBC and soon thereafter KTLA, which pioneered local breaking news coverage, were really the only local television stations that had continuous coverage of the earthquake. As the Los Angeles Times noted, KNXT and KABC had intermittent updates throughout the morning, and Ralph Story carried on with his morning show as usual only mentioning the earthquake here and there. The Times also wondered where KHJ-TV, KTTV and KCOP news coverage was during this "Day of Disaster" (as the Times' banner front-page headline ran the following day) as they carried on with their usual fare of morning cartoons all while seemingly ignoring one of the biggest disasters in modern L.A. history.

33 comments:

  1. I was born on this day, at this time in the Sylmar Hospital.

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  2. My Auntie was an ER Nurse at the sylmar hospital.

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  3. I was 10 years old living in Pacoima on Ilex St. That quake seemed to last forever. The San Fernando mall was a complete mess.

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  4. it was the I5 and the 14 freeway not the 210

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    1. The tall overpass is I-5/14; the Chevy pickup is I-5/210. I went under it just before it went down. My folks sent me from Sylmar to Saugus to check on my sister. Couldn't get back, had to go out 126 to get back to the valley.

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  5. Funniest thing is that the Pic at the top dose not show Sylmar or even the SF Valley.

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  6. I remember this very well. I was living in an apartment in Hollywood built about 1930. I was nearly bounced out of bed that morning. I later heard from a friend at work that he was on the freeway coming from the valley. His truck bounced across from lane to lane.

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    1. I remember that day, we lived in an apartment in Costa Mesa, it was a relatives funeral that day, I was still in bed before school. I sort of don't remember a whole lot more about it because of the funeral chaos, and we still went to school that day.

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  7. i lived in Sylmar, was in high school at the time it hit.

    We didn't have running water for a week, and no hot water for a week and a half.
    All the food fell out of the kitchen cabinets, and the refrigerator too.
    We survived with a camping stove and the grill. there was no gas to cook with.
    and a neighbor, a fireman, used a fire hose to their pool to let us fill up buckets of water
    to flush the toilets with.

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  8. This earthquake traumatized me forever. I am now 51 and still freak out when the earth shakes. I was 6 yrs old at the time and remember everything. My dad picked me up and I started to scream as I saw a crack start to travel along the walls and up to the ceiling, not knowing if our house was going to break in two and collapse with us in it. I have lived with this fear since I was a little girl which I believe is worst than living through the actual earthquake itself.

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  9. This earthquake traumatized me forever. I am now 51 and still freak out when the earth shakes. I was 6 yrs old at the time and remember everything. My dad picked me up and I started to scream as I saw a crack start to travel along the walls and up to the ceiling, not knowing if our house was going to break in two and collapse with us in it. I have lived with this fear since I was a little girl which I believe is worst than living through the actual earthquake itself.

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  10. I so agree with you! I have moved from Calif to NC, I was so scared of earthquakes like you were, I hated being on the second floor of anywhere. I don't think I could live there anymore, although I miss it very much! I feel your pain, and I'm so sorry you have had to live with this fear!

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  11. I so agree with you! I have moved from Calif to NC, I was so scared of earthquakes like you were, I hated being on the second floor of anywhere. I don't think I could live there anymore, although I miss it very much! I feel your pain, and I'm so sorry you have had to live with this fear!

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  12. I lived there in 1971 woke up to my house shaking

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  13. I lived there in 1971 woke up to my house shaking

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  14. I was 7 years old at the time and remember every detail. My mom pulled me and my sister out of our beds to get us under our bedroom door frame. The loud sounds of continuous rummbling and glass breaking I will never forget. The worse part was the constant aftershocks that made me jump and tremble. Thankfully we were ok and our home only suffered minor damage. Everyone around us had many stories to tell of where they were when it hit and the people they knew that experienced it. I will always be affected by this event. We moved out of California as a result of the earthquake.

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    1. I agree that the aftershocks were very scary! For years, every time a big truck rumbled down the street my heart pounded.

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  15. I lived in an apartment in Pasadena with my husband and two sons. The youngest only three weeks old. Woke up by this "incredible rain thrushing on the windows"......took a few seconds to realise it wasn't rain! Lampshades were swaying and I shook my husband to wake him up,and he shouted "get the baby",our 2 1/2 year old was already in our bed. We ran downstairs to take cover in the doorframe to the entrance.
    Long afterwards my little boy still said he didn't want any more "jumping house" when he was put to bed,and wanted the lights on. They have forgotten it,but I haven't.

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  16. I lived on Sepulveda Blvd in Van Nuys...I was 21 and we had to evacuate because they expected the dam to go....very long day and weeks to come. We had to boil our water for the next few weeks and had constant after quakes....very nerve racking period of my life.

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  17. I was 5 years old and living in Bellflower. My dad was getting ready for work and heard the quake coming. 5-10 second heads up to get in the doorway. It was my first earthquake but not my last. Loma-prieta in 1989 I lived in the North bay. Most recent was the ones that shook Hawthorne Never. I live in the motherboard now

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  18. My grandparents lived in Sylmar. A few doors up at the end of the street was the fence of the grounds of Olive View hospital. We could see the hospital from that fence. A house on the corner shifted a foot off its foundation. No one on their street (Dyer St) was injured to the best of my recollection. My family lived in Arcadia at the time...I was a teenager and I remember the water sloshing out of our pool onto my sister's bedroom windows. I was terrified of earthquakes and got out of SoCal as fast as I could!

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  19. I was 15 years old when the earthquake hit. I was fast asleep and had a dream that a bull dozer was lifting up our house by the corner, lol. Then I woke up, realized what was happening and yelled for my sister in the bunk above me to hold on. As the earthquake subsided, my parents yelled from the other side of the kitchen to not come into the kitchen without shoes. Dishes and food from the cupboards and fridge had been thrown out and there was a lot of broken glass on the floor.

    My father was going to head into work and heard on the radio that we had to evacuate. We packed some belongings and I was putting towels against the bottom of the doors and putting some things on the top bunk so they wouldn't get wet if the dam broke. My father told me nothing would be dry. I had no concept. We were lucky we were able to stay with relatives during that time.

    The police were amazing in that they kept our homes safe from vandalism.

    I have been in a few other earthquakes but not as bad as that one.

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    1. I was also 15 when it hit. What school did you go to, i wonder?

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  20. I was 4 years old in this earthquake. We lived on North Brand Blvd. on the northeast end of San Fernando, near Sylmar. We were up and getting ready for work, school and daycare. I was scared to death and had no concept of what was happening. My brother who was 9 was in the kitchen making his lunch, and was trying to keep the refrigerator from tipping over as tons of glasses and plates (and all our heirloom china and crystal) crashed out of the cupboards on to the floor. My dad picked me up and carried me outside and I remember saying, "What's happening Daddy?" and he said, "It's an earthquake, Honey". My mom brought my brother outside and we waited in the front yard trying to get some information. Soon after, the police drove through the neighborhoods telling everyone over their loudspeakers to evacuate the area. We moved to Kansas for a few months until things settled down, then came back.

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  21. I was 10and (woke up to the rumble) and a dresser had tipped over on my 3year old brother, i (instinct only) dug him out and my dad led us all to the end of the house as it was going on... Lived in Sylmar two blocks below what is now Mission College. My older sister cut up her feet running through glass as we went through kitchen... Dad had to patch her up... spent the the next two years riding bikes on the now closed 210 fwy, and playing i the condemned olive view hospital... too young to realize danger- but recognized the great adventure of no water or power for a few weeks...

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  22. February 9th 1971 with my boyfriend 18th birthday and my parents had just gotten divorced and we went from living in a nice home to living in an apartment building and the full length mirror on the back of the bedroom door Came Crashing Down and my mom came running through the glass to save her twins!

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  23. I was nine years old on this day. Still today, forty-six years later this day does not pass without remembering how incredibly violent the amplitude of this earthquake was. We lived in La Crescenta on Lowell Ave up the hill from Foothill Blvd. My first natural disaster, the first of several.

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  24. I was there...7th grade. I was JUST waking up, started to shake and I thought COOL AN EARTHQUAKE! Then it became too large. I hid under my covers for safety. Some fish from our pond were on the concrete. It is SO VIVID!

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  25. I was 7 years old and living in Granada Hills when it struck. I will never forget it as long as I live. The tremors were really bad afterwards and seemed to never stop. Me and my sisters were wanting to stay out in the tent overnight and pleading and begged our parents all night but for once they insisted no. The next morning our block wall had collapsed, completely crushing the tent.

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  26. I was in Panorama City and was woken up by the antenna on my transistor radio falling over and hitting me... We didn't have too much damage, but the power was out and there was a strong smell of natural gas in the area - that was frightening! I worked at Ralphs Panorama Market and EVERYTHING was off the shelves. It took weeks to sort that out. I remember that one of the local brewery's (Schlitz or Bud, I forget which) brought drinking water in a tank truck to a parking lot near Roscoe & Van Nuys. As we were under a boil water order that was certainly helpful. Definitely a life changing experience.

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  27. I was living in Belmont Shore in Long Beach at the time. I was 14 years old and would normally rise for school a little after 6am each morning after getting a morning greeting from my mom over the intercom system we had built into the house. No need for a wake-up call that morning. Our house was situated on a small hill rising from 2nd St. to Shaw St., with the north end of the house dug into the hill and the south end propped up by I-beams forming a breezeway. We had a pool in the backyard which in the course of the earthquake had spilled about half its water over the sides of the pool. There were cracks in the concrete around our play area in the back behind the pool, but the house didn't budge one inch from its foundation. My dad was in the housing construction business and knew enough to frame the house with steel I-beams, which was unheard-of at the time. Turned out to be a wise decision; that house isn't going anywhere, even built on the side of a hill. Because of its sturdy construction, not a single window broke, nothing fell from the walls, nothing toppled over. Only damage was cracked concrete in the sandbox and about 5,000 gallons of water being thrown out of the pool. It helped that we were about 45 miles from the epicenter; but anyone living there at the time knows that while the magnitude was a 6.6, the MMI intensity was "Extreme" (XI on the scale), and everyone living in Long Beach at the time could attest to the sensation of the epicenter being right underneath us. Most intense earthquake I've experienced in my life up to this point.

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