Saturday, May 14, 2011

Memories of an Earthquake

Forty years ago on February 9, 1971 at 6:01 a.m., a magnitude 6.6 earthquake struck. It happened in Sylmar, California, just a few miles from my home in Northridge. I was 19 years old.

Ironically one of my favorite movies ever was San Francisco starring Clark Gable and Jeannette MacDonald. It was set at the turn of the century when another famous earthquake hit. I watched and quivered with sheer terror as giant cracks opened up in the road and swallowed people; walls tumbled down crushing anything and everything in its way; and cried as the masses of people searched for their loved ones (mostly Gable and MacDonald) and watched helplessly as their homes burned.

The morning of the Sylmar Quake, my mother tells me she and her husband Duke were having coffee; she got up to make a fresh cup and he went to the back door to look outside. As he stood there holding the door open he said, "You know, it's very strange. It's completely silent outside. Not even the birds are chirping." Then they heard the rumble and the shaking started. He stood there holding onto the door; mom set the tea kettle on the floor and started for our bedrooms. 

All I remember is suddenly my bed was violently shaking and I had no idea what was going on. I started screaming for my mom, jumped out of bed on the far side of my room in front of my large picture window, and had to run around the bed to get out of my room. Just as I got to my door, the bookcase crashed down just barely missing me.  I saw mom walking down the hall; she was holding onto the wall trying to not fall. As I was going towards her a big jolt hit, throwing me into her; we slammed into the wall but managed to stay upright. My brother, John, came sauntering out of his bedroom like nothing was happening! Mom pulled both of us into her bedroom, and we sat huddled on her bed until the shaking stopped. I was sure the roof was going to collapse on us any second and we would all die! I could not stop crying.

Finally the hysteria eased and I was able to grasp just what had happened - an earthquake.  The house was not damaged, but as I looked around I could see the side door still opened; the tea kettle was now tipped over and boiling hot water had melted the wax on the kitchen floor; anything sitting on shelves had been knocked over or off; and my bedroom was completely trashed. I was really upset about the bookcase falling over because my fishbowl was sitting on top of it. All that was left were glass shards in a puddle of water and no fish to be found. In fact, it was 3 weeks before I found the fish. Dead. Dehydrated. Behind the leg of my dresser stuck under the baseboard.

Eventually we settled in the living room and turned on the news. I sat and watched in shock seeing pictures of the Veteran's Hospital in San Fernando...

...and Olive View Hospital (which was only one year old) in Sylmar...

...both of which had collapsed.

Sections of the freeway had collapsed as well...

...crushing one man to death as he drove to work.

Many homes were damaged.

A portion of the Van Norman Dam had collapsed directly north of our home. I just knew that there would be a flood and we would all drown, even though we survived the earthquake!

Mom called my Uncle Pat, who lived in Sylmar (the epicenter of the earthquake) and he shared that a fissure had opened up in his backyard, but family and farm animals were safe.  Thankfully all of my family was safe.

Sadly, 65 people lost their lives and there was over $500 million in damage.

Being a Valley Girl born and raised, I had experienced earthquakes all my life but they were just little tremors. This one changed my life forever. Ironically I am no longer terrified of them like I once was. In fact, a week after the earthquake while standing in my driveway working on my VW bug I heard the familiar rumble, said "Here comes another aftershock," and went back to working on my car.

In 1994 the Northridge Earthquake struck.  Sixty people were killed, more than 7,000 injured, and 20,000 were left homeless. Although I was living in Sacramento I went back to help my friend, Lisa, dig out of her apartment and rebuild her life. She had a family friend, Clarence Wayne Dean, a motorcycle officer with the LAPD, who, upon experiencing the earthquake on his way home, turned his motorcycle around to go back and help. Unfortunately Officer Dean was killed when his motorcycle drove off of a section of freeway which had just collapsed due to the earthquake. It was dark and he could not see it. They have since rebult that portion and have named it after him.

Most of us never really get to see an earthquake fault line.  My brother and mother now live in Palm Springs and the San Andreas Fault is visible from their houses.  Intrigued, I wanted to visit it.  So New Years 2010 that is exactly what I did.  It is a beautiful, peaceful, palm tree lined oasis in the middle of the desert.  The ground is cracked open and water bubbles up to the surface, making the area green and lush. It is hard to imagine that a thing of beauty can cause such destruction.

Earthquakes, like any natural disaster, happen coast to coast, from San Francisco CA to Savannah GA, Alaska and Hawaii. So when one happens to you, stay inside and stand in a doorway. It is the safest place to be.

Do you remember what you were doing at 6:01 a.m. on February 19, 1971? I will never forget...

(These clocks were all removed from Olive View Hospital - frozen at the time of the earthquake.)


  1. thank you. I was ten when the earthquake hit and do not have as many memories of the time.

  2. thank you. I was ten when the earthquake hit and do not have as many memories of the time.

  3. Glad you could get a different perspective!

  4. Glad you could get a different perspective!