Sylmar Earthquake Approaches 50th Anniversary

(l) The 1971 San Fernando earthquake (magnitude 6.7) collapsed four buildings at the San Fernando Veterans Administration Hospital complex (above), killing 47 people. The buildings had been built in 1925, before building codes were in effect.

(r) The clock, pictured here, was recovered from a collapsed building at the the San Fernando Veterans Hospital by rescue workers following the 1971 Sylmar Earthquake. The clock’s hands are frozen at the exact time the quake struck that morning.

Before the coronavirus pandemic struck in 2020, killing thousands and shutting down industries throughout the state, the biggest worries for many Californians regarding unexpected natural disasters were typically floods and earthquakes — especially earthquakes, which have the power to reduce cities and communities to rubble seemingly in an instant.

Feb. 9 will earmark the 50th anniversary of the 1971 Sylmar Earthquake (also known as the San Fernando Earthquake) that started rumbling in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains at 6:01 a.m. — the origin of the fault being located five miles north of the San Fernando Valley — and would reach a magnitude of 6.7 at its peak. It was the first strong quake to hit the area since the Pico Canyon quake in 1893.

The shaking on the ground lasted about 60 seconds, according to a report later filed by the US Geological Survey agency. But the intensity of the shaking was much stronger than many structures built at that time could withstand.

The quake ultimately killed 64 people —- 47 of them at the San Fernando Veterans Administration Hospital in Sylmar — injured 2,543 persons, and caused more than $550 million worth of damage to the Northeast San Fernando Valley and other densely populated sections in north Los Angeles county.

Commercial buildings, homes, hospitals and sections of freeways collapsed. Schools had to be closed. The Van Norman Dam, located in Mission Hills just northwest of City of San Fernando and containing 3.6 billion gallons of drinking water, also partially collapsed which brought its water table near the top of the dam, forcing 80,000 people to be evacuated for four days. But engineers were able to do enough repairs and lower the water levels before a breach and potential devastating flood could occur.

“Certainly there was nothing in the very recent seismic history to suggest that this area, more than any other area, was particularly likely to experience a magnitude 6.6 earthquake,” the US Geological Survey report said.

“It was an expensive and heartbreaking lesson, but California has learned something, and can take heart,” wrote California Geology in 1971. “But what we have learned is far surpassed by our astonishing luck.

“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 earthquake hit at rush hours, when the streets and freeways were full of traffic; had it hit during school hours, when schools were filled with children — our grief might be much greater.” 

Fred Iverson was a 25-year-old City of San Fernando policeman in 1971. He had been with the department for three years, and was on a solo vehicle patrol on the city streets that morning, and had just rolled to a stop at the intersection of Fourth and Maclay streets when the quake struck.

“The quake was so strong it threw me onto the passenger seat,” recalled Iverson, now 75, retired and living in Santa Clarita. “And then the bricks from a church steeple fell down and hit the side of my car.

“At first I didn’t realize I was leaning on the seat but I knew something was wrong. And then, off in the distance I saw a large flash in the sky; it was a transformer that blew up. I thought for a second, ‘the Russians were dropping a bomb on us and this might be the end.’”

Iverson had stopped because the signal light had turned red. He also remembered a bus stopped on Maclay Street, dropping off passengers as the quake began.

“I was lucky I didn’t run into anybody or a building. But it was so early in the morning…there was hardly any traffic — the bus, a couple of other cars and me on the road,” he said. “We had just three cops patrolling the city by car at the time, and one other officer at the station.”

Iverson said he raced back to the station to check on the lone officer there — he was okay — then spent the rest of that day and following days helping residents and businesses recover.

“I had never really experienced any earthquake except for a little one in the 1950s,” Iverson said. “San Fernando was really close to the [quake] epicenter and [the shaking] felt really sharp. San Fernando felt like it was on top of it.”

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