Time Hasn’t Dimmed Memories of Sylmar Quake

Fred Iversen, near where the San Fernando Veterans Administration Hospital was located,  remembers those who lost their lives there in the 1971 Sylmar Earthquake.

As Fred Iversen entered Veterans Memorial Community Park in Sylmar in the early afternoon on Tuesday, Feb. 9, his mood was somber.

Iversen, 75, a former City of San Fernando police officer, went to an area in the park where the San Fernando Veterans Association Hospital had once stood. Fifty years ago — Feb. 9, 1971 — several of the hospital’s many buildings there, along with other structures throughout the San Fernando Valley and other parts of Los Angeles county, collapsed or were severely damaged by a 6.6 magnitude earthquake.

Forty-seven of the 64 deaths caused by the quake happened at this facility, which was first a tuberculosis hospital in 1926 before becoming a general use hospital in the 1960s. In 1971, there were 45 buildings on the grounds. By 1972 it was determined the buildings that had survived the quake would be abandoned and demolished.

Along with the fatalities, 2,543 persons were injured. The quake also caused more than $500 million in damage throughout Los Angeles county. It could have been worse; if the operational Van Norman Dam in Mission Hills had been breached, nearly four billion gallons of water might have literally washed away whole communities and cities.

Iversen — who presently lives in Santa Clarita — had visited the location back in 2006 on the quake’s 35th anniversary. That day there was a planned memorial with dignitaries and media.

On Tuesday, he came by himself.

He brought with him a clock that was recovered from one of the destroyed hospital buildings. It was found by fire fighter and first responder John Hartman who, operating a bulldozer, was knocking down walls to free any trapped patients.

The clock, remarkably, was not completely destroyed. But the hands of the clock were frozen on the exact time the quake struck — 6:01 a.m.

The clock was originally used as a memorial symbol for the hospital’s quake victims. Hartman eventually gave the clock to Iversen, who first kept it in his garage before sealing it in a shadow box in 2006 to display it on the 35th anniversary.  

“Help My Baby”

Iversen was 25 years old and in his third year on the city’s police force when the earthquake occurred.

He was on vehicle patrol that morning, and had come to a stop on Maclay and Fourth streets as the powerful shaking began. He recalled being thrown onto the empty passenger side of the front seat; the patrol car was pelted by bricks falling from a church steeple.

“At first I didn’t realize I was leaning on the passenger seat. Then I realized something was wrong,” Iversen said. 

Fortunately he was not hurt. And, after making sure the desk sergeant — who was by himself at the station — was all right, Iversen went back on the streets looking for people in need of help.

He found perhaps the quake’s first human casualty.

“At the corner of Maclay and First…I saw a pile of bricks instead of a building,” Iversen said, referring to a former two-story structure on First Street that he said had been a plumbing shop with an apartment on top. “There was some movement [on top of] the bricks. I stopped and saw a lady digging in the bricks.

“She walked over to my police car with her son in her arms. And I’ll never forget this until the day I die; she just kept saying,’ help my baby, help my baby.’ I don’t think I’d ever heard it before and I don’t know if I ever heard it after that.”

Iversen said he took one look at the boy, covered in dirt and dust, and instinctively knew there was nothing that could be done for the youth even though he got the fire department to transport the victim to Holy Cross Hospital in Mission Hills, where he was officially pronounced dead.

“He’d been crushed to death,” Iversen says, sadly. “Somebody said he might have been 10-years-old, but I couldn’t tell in the [early morning] darkness. He was covered in red brick powder and this other white dust — a powder from the brick mortar. You could see a little blood soaking through the dust.

“He was certainly the first confirmed death in the City of San Fernando that day, if not the whole county.”

Iversen later learned the boy had just joined the Cub Scouts, and the family could not afford a brand new uniform. They had bought him a used one from a thrift shop.

“Someone told me he was wearing it that morning,” Iversen said. “I don’t know. He was covered with so much brick dust, he could have worn a tuxedo and I wouldn’t have known the difference.”

Iversen was moved to eventually get a copy of the youth’s death certificate so he could learn the victim’s name: Angel Manuel Ferrer. Iversen said he keeps the certificate copy filed alongside other mementos of his own family members.

“I felt a connection to him,” Iversen said.

Breaking Ground and Raising Mountains

The Sylmar quake marked the first time in Southern California that a major fault line quake had broken through land surfaces under homes and buildings in the Los Angeles area. It also lifted up the Santa Susana Mountains —separating the San Fernando and Simi valleys —  by six feet.

Even years later, the quake has provided scientists and geologists an enduring laboratory, if you will, to study the actions and reactions of major fault lines and how they affect fixed structures like homes and freeways. It also spurred needed updates in building codes as well as the placing of nearly 2,000 seismometers throughout the region, both above and underground.

The Northridge quake in 1994 — which had a magnitude of 6.7 and also caused landslides and fires — was similar in destructiveness to homes and buildings, caused an estimated 57 fatalities, and forced more revisions of building codes.

Scientists are still expecting “a big one” to hit along the San Andreas fault line that runs for nearly 750 miles in the state.

Watching his Children’s Beds Move 

Like Iversen, Heriberto Jimenez has vivid memories of the Sylmar quake.

He was a young father back in 1971, and had worked until 2 a.m. at a frozen food packing company called Oh Boy Pizza, near Harding Avenue and First Street, before returning to his home in Pacoima.

Jimenez hadn’t been asleep that long when he was awakened by the tremors.

“I saw my (two) children’s beds moved from side to side throughout the room,” remembered Jimenez, now 81.

He didn’t get back to sleep when the shaking stopped, in part because he was called back to work. The business was in shambles; stands, shelves and many other things were strewn all around. He said it took about two weeks to put everything back in its place.

In rushing to get to the packing company, Jimenez said he failed to stop at a stop sign and was pulled over by police. He told them his company had called him in to help with the cleanup. Jimenez added that the officer followed him to Oh Boy Pizza to make sure he was telling the truth.

Once he arrived, Jimenez helped other co-workers restore  things. There was no electricity or water, so part of his day was spent bringing buckets of water from a truck outside to throw into the freezers in an attempt to keep food from spoiling.

He remembered a woman who was working the early morning shift was injured when a large container filled with salsa fell on her head. “She had to go to the hospital,” Jimenez said.

Jimenez also remembered seeing the remains of a large store at the corner of Hubbard Street and Glenoaks Boulevard that was also destroyed. He also saw long lines of people at Santa Rosa Catholic Church, where food and hygiene items were given out to those impacted by the earthquake.

But, Jimenez said, he was lucky his home didn’t sustain the kind of damage done to other structures by the quake, which was “pretty ugly.”

And unforgettable — even 50 years later.

Francisco Castro contributed to this report.

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