Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive

    February 9, 1971
    The Sylmar Earthquake




14 Killed, 9 at Two Hospitals;
Southland Damage in Millions

Scores Trapped
In Building Ruins

    Fourteen persons were killed today, nine of them in hospitals as a minute-long earthquake rolled over Los Angeles and suburbs at 6:02 a.m.

    It was the worst recorded quake in the city's history.

    Heaviest death toll was in San Fernando Valley, epicenter of the jolting, rumbling temblor.

    Sections of two hospitals collapsed.  Seven lives were lost at the Veterans Administration Hospital, 39000 Sayer St. in the Sylmar area and two died in a structural collapse at Olive View Hospital and Sanitarium, 14701 Foothill Blvd., Olive View.

    Three persons also were killed in the city of Newhall.

    Another died when the front of the Midnight Mission toppled at Second and Los Angeles streets in downtown Los Angeles.

    Retired druggist Elmer Hl. Schroeder, 70 of 5440 Quakertown Ave., Woodland Hills fell dead of a heart attack as he tried to help his wife when their second story apartment began to shake.

    Scientists at California Institute of Technology said the quake measured 6.5 on the Richter scale.  Its epicenter was 10 miles east of Newhall.

    Emergency crews evacuated an 80-square-mile area in the vicinity of Van Norman Dam, Mission Hills, which has a crack down its center and is leaking water.

    The area evacuated extends west of Balboa Boulevard, right on Van Nuys Boulevard, south to Ventura Boulevard and north to the Golden State Freeway.

    The quake was the worst in the Southland since the Long Beach disaster of 1933.


    SACRAMENTO  (AP)--Gov. Ronald Reagan declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles County today because of the earthquake that struck Southern California.

    The Republican governor said he would ask President Nixon to take similar action at the federal level.

     "I have assured Los Angeles County officials that the state of California will provide whatever assistance and resources may be needed to deal with the effects of the quake."  Reagan said.

    Reagan was briefed on the earthquake situation by his Office of Emergency Services this morning and then said the state would make available whatever aid local authorities needed in dealing with the problem.

    There were no immediate plans for the governor to visit Los Angeles, which is his home.  But his press office said those plans would depend on further reports from the scene later in the day.

    Reagan was scheduled to hold a regular news conference in the Capitol later in the day.

    The State Department of Mental Hygiene already had cleared sections of Camarillo State Hospital to take in patients from a damaged hospital in the earthquake area.

    Damage today was running into the millions.  County and city engineers said it will be weeks before full extent of damages is calculated.

    Streets were strewn with shattered glass, concrete and bricks, walls buckled in major buildings, bridges cracked and some fell, freeways split, and thousands of homes suffered structural and internal destruction from tumbling furnishings.

    Olive View sanitarium, where two died, was declared a total loss.  Upper floors of its main mental health building collapsed to the ground floor.

    Persons were reported trapped in the facility's recreation room. Ambulances were rushing injured to hospitals.

    Rescuers worked frantically at the Veteran's Hospital to free 60 persons reportedly trapped inside.

    In Newhall, fire destroyed the J & J Tire Store,  at Newhall and Lyons avenues, severely damaged Hart High School at First Street and Newhall Avenue, and triggered uncounted other fires.

    Even as rescue and firefighting efforts continued, police arrested three looters in Newhall and reported others stealing form quake-damaged stores in the desert community and sporadic looting at shops along Hollywood Boulevard.

    The giant tremor swayed Los Angeles' new forest of high-rise buildings.  Jutting Occidental Towers three-building complex has been closed as building crews check for structural damage.

        Olvera Street, a picturesque tourist attraction adjacent to the Plaza in the heart of old Los Angeles, is a shambles of collapsed stalls and strewn merchandise.

    The quake was so intense it briefly knocked out some voice communications at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, according to a spokesman.

    The agency said that it lost telephone contact with the Long Beach control tower.

    Buildings swayed and cracked from Los Angeles west to Santa Monica, northeast to Hollywood and Burbank, then throughout the San Fernando valley and the Saugus-Newhall area.

    Windows shattered.  Highways cracked and buckled.

Merchandise in stores and household objects on tables and shelves tumbled to floors.  Power and phone service was knocked out throughout a wide area.

    Power transformers popped like firecrackers and high voltage lines snapped.

    Three churches were severely damaged in Pasadena, one of them almost collapsing onto the street.

    The Presbyterian Church at Madison Avenue and Colorado Boulevard, the Holliston Avenue Methodist Church at Holliston and Colorado, and the Calvary Baptist Church at Marion Avenue and Colorado were damaged.

    The Baptist Church was reported leaning over onto Colorado.

    The ornament atop Pasadena City Hall's dome was twisted at a 90-degree angle by the whip action of the quake.

    All residents in the northern end of the San Fernando Valley were ordered by the City Health Department to boil drinking water as the area's chlorination plant was seriously damaged by the shock waves.

    Evacuation centers for the area were designated as Granada Hills High School, 10535 Zelzah Ave.,  Frost Junior High School, 12314 Bradford Place, and San Fernando City Park, Jessie and Truman streets.

    Downtown Los Angeles streets glittered with glass amid bits of masonry.  Virtually all plate glasses in some stores along Broadway were knocked out.

    Dawn had just broken when the quake hit, sending frightened hotel and apartment dwellers swarming into downtown streets.  Congestion was like mid-day.

    A huge cornice fell from the First Methodist Church at Hope and Eighth streets, narrowly missing people on the corner.  The heavy material shattered like shrapnel across the intersection.

    A five-inch crack was reported in a 12th-floor concrete wall at the downtown Hall of Justice, which houses some 2000 county jail prisoners.

    At the decades old Hall of Justice, where Charles Manson and three followers are on trial in the Sharon Tate murder case, fourth-floor walls were laced with cracks and plaster littered the corridor.  The new police building nearby had numerous broken windows.

    "I was in my kitchen," said a suburban housewife.  "I fell down and hung onto the sink and started praying."

    "I was virtually knocked out of bed,"  said a resident of a Los Angeles suburb.  "When I got out I could barely walk the floor was rolling so."

    "I felt as though my car had a flat," said a motorist who felt the shock en route to work.

    Broadway Department Store at Hollywood and Vine was overflowing with water from ruptured mains.

    Heavy damage was reported at a roller rink on Sunset Boulevard at St. Andrews Place.

    Other sporadic reports of damage pouring in included:

  • Windows shattered on Crenshaw Boulevard from Coliseum Drive to Stocker Avenue, on the west side of the street only.
  • Three-story long crack in Bank of America building, 111 W. Seventh St. Street was blocked off while damage was inspected.
  • Heavy window breakage throughout business district in 10800 block of Zelzah Ave., Northridge.
  • Traffic signals out throughout South-Central Los Angeles and motorists racing through them with abandon.
  • Piers weakened but no collapses reported from the harbor area.
  • Concrete and bricks from upper stories of the Subway Terminal Building, 417 S. Hill St., shattered on the street below.
  • Bricks on sidewalks and show windows damaged on the Hill Street side of the downtown Bullock's department store and nearby and May Co.
  • Pieces of stone facade from Coast Federal Savings Building, Ninth and Hill streets, strewn on sidewalks.

        California Highway Patrol reported collapse of an overpass under constructing on the San Diego Freeway in the northbound lanes at the Golden State Freeway.

    Rock slides on Angeles Crest Highway made the roadway impassable.

    Cracks and holes were reported in the Golden State Freeway in the San Fernando Valley area.

    Police said Third Street between Central Avenue and San Pedro Street was closed due to fear that weakened building fronts may topple.


Temblor Most Powerful
Ever Recorded in City

    Los Angeles swayed today under impact of the most damaging earthquake ever registered in the immediate city area, according to records of the United States Geological Survey.

    Quakes of greater magnitude struck the northern Santa Barbara Channel in 1927, and the Tehachapi-Bakersfield area in 1952.

    But within approximately 100 miles of central Los Angeles, no shake has been recorded to top the 6.5 reading of Tuesday.

    The Geological Survey's records date to 1912 and list some 20 quakes of magnitude 6.0 or more as having occurred in southern California.

    By Richter scale and pre-Richter calculations, the second most-powerful tremor recorded in Los Angeles proper was that of 1923, centered in the San Jacinto Mountains, southeast of the city.  It is rated 6.2 by the Survey, and caused only light damage in Los Angeles.

    In 1918, also in the isolated San Jacintos, but some 150 miles from downtown, a mighty 6.8 quake occurred.

    Thus, speaking of the metropolitan area only, Los Angeles today experienced an all-time champion earthquake.

    Two quakes of identical 6.3 magnitude--one in the Long Beach area in 1933 and another in Santa Barbara in 1925--produced disastrous damage because their epicenters were near central cities.

    The Long Beach toll was $40 million in property destruction and 115 lives lost.  The Santa Barbara shake leveled much of the business district at a $6 million loss there, and killing 20.

    A quake of 1927 ranks--along with Tehachapi-Bakersfield in 1952--as the all-time southern California whopper.

        Registering at 7.5, the 1927 upheaval centered just north of Point Arguello in the upper Santa Barbara channel, destroying railways bridges, crumbling cliffs and sending a seismic wave as far north as Pismo Beach.

    The Kern County series of quakes in 1952 reached 7.7 and rank as second-largest in the United States since records were kept, behind San Francisco's 8.3 cataclysm of 1906.

    The great Alaska shake of March 27, 1964, with a magnitude of 8.5 was the strongest ever recorded in the nation.


200 miles of quake reaction was felt in state, and into Mexico


    For more than one violent minute, starting at 6:02 a.m., Los Angeles and suburbs rocked and rolled in the clutches of a jilting rolling earthquake today.

    The series of earth movements began with one sharp jolt, intensifying each second, and peaked in 45 seconds to a shuddering crescendo of rocking and swaying.

    The earthquake pent its maximum force in the next eight seconds, then tapered off in a slow series of shocks and tremors    

Evacuated in 
L.A. Dam Area

    Three Los Angeles area dams were damaged and Flood Control District officers were checking a reported crack in a fourth as a result of today's earthquake.

    Several thousand persons were evacuated from homes south of Van Norman Dam in Mission Hills.  Van Norman Lake reportedly sank one foot in the middle.

    A 60-foot section of the concrete dam at the lake's southern edge collapsed, and portions were reported still crumbling during the evacuation.

    The evacuation area extended east to Van Nuys Boulevard, south to Ventura Freeway and west to Corbin Avenue.

    Crews from the Water and Power Department were draining the lake in to a flood control channel in an attempt to control overflow and halt the collapse and to allow repair efforts to begin.

    Mclay Dam in the San Fernando Valley community of Pacoima developed a minor crack, police reported, and water was trickling down the face of the structure.

    Communication lines downed in the area made progress reports difficult to obtain but no immediate emergency was anticipated.

    Cracks also were reported in Hansen Dam on Sepulveda Boulevard in Lakeview Terrace.

    County Flood Control District officials reported all of the district's 14 dams were safe.  A check of Devils Gate Dam near Pasadena revealed an earlier report of a possible crack was in error.

    Included in the FCD's dams are Pacoima, Big Tujunga, Devils Gate, Eaton, Santa Anita, Sawpit, Cogswell, San Gabriel, Big Dalton, San Dimas, Puddingstone Dam and Puddingstone Diversion, Live Oak and Thompson Creek dams.


    Hundreds of Mission Hills residents fled their homes today under order of authorities when vertical cracks appeared in  the 51-year-old lower Van Norman Dam.

    Many loaded valuables in family autos, but scores were evacuated in hurriedly impressed school buses in the suburb below Van Norman Dam where homes run from $30,000 upward.

    The dam holds back more than 6 billion gallons of water and is the largest in the city's water system.

    Lawmen equipped with bullhorns ordered evacuation from helicopters and patrol cars cruising over and in the exclusive developments there.  All residents from the 80-square-mile area were ordered out of their homes or suffer arrest.

    Van Norman Dam is located on a rise well above most homes in the area.

    Robert E. Noel, resident dam custodian, said concrete facing collapsed along two-thirds of the dam's 1100-foot structure but earth fill behind it held although some leakage was reported.

    Boundaries of the evacuation area include San Diego Freeway on the east;  Balboa Boulevard on the west, Roscoe Boulevard on the south and the dam on the north.


    Reports of damage in this morning's earthquake included:

    The Golden State Freeway buckled at the San Diego interchange and was closed.

    All windows were smashed in the Hollywood-Burbank Airport control tower and the radar service was interrupted.  Tower operators abandoned their positions, but returned when the quake subsided.

    Windows were broken in the Van Nuys Airport tower.

    The Harbor area reported no serious damage, but countless windows were broken and piers were weakened.  No piers appear to be in danger of collapsing, police said.

    A crack opened in an overpass bridge on the Pasadena Freeway near Avenue 60.  A gas main was reported broken and leaking.  Cracks appeared in the Northeast Division police station.

    Windows were broken on the second floor of police headquarters at Parker Center.  Other civic buildings were reported damaged, but no estimate has been made yet of the total effect.

    The Garden Grove Freeway developed a wide crack across the highway one mile south of the San Diego Freeway.  There were no reports of accidents or auto damage at that location.

    An Interstate 5 bridge in Newhall was reported buckled.

    The Golden State Freeway at Roxford Street in Pacoima had rock slides across all  lanes and was closed temporarily.

    A major slide was reported on Angeles Crest Highway.

    Fires were reported in a shipping center in the 10800 block of Zelzah Avenue in Northridge.  Nearly all store windows were broken.

    All traffic signals were blacked out in South-Central Los Angeles and motorists reportedly were rushing through the intersections with abandon.  

    One man was reported injured and lying on the sidewalk on Hollywood Boulevard as looters seized merchandise from broken sore windows and fled.

    In the area between Vine Street and Vermont Avenue along Hollywood Boulevard, 22 buildings with broken windows were noted and three had visible structural damage.

    Broken mains were spouting geysers of water at three locations along the boulevard.

    At the Broadway Department Store at Hollywood Boulevard and Vine street, water was shooting from between the fifth and sixth floors, cascading to the street below.  Firemen had great difficulty getting to the broken pipes.

    Extensive masonry and window damage was prevalent in the mid-Wilshire area, mostly in commercial buildings.

    Streets and sidewalks were littered with broken glass as residents of  the numerous apartment buildings in the Wilshire area streamed into the streets after the main quake.

    Traffic signals in the same area were either out or erratic on Olympic Boulevard, on Catalina Avenue and on Eighth and Ninth streets.

    Firemen cordoned off 11th Street, between Broadway and Main Street, because of structural damage to the Harris Building at 110 W. 11th St. 

    A broken water pipe on the sixth floor of the Harris Building destroyed an estimated $250,000 in clothing.  Damage could run as high as $1 million, according to a company official.  The building is the home office of Harris Slacks.

    Thousands of books were piled three feet deep as shelves collapsed in the Los Angeles Public Library, 635 W. 5th St.  Half-inch-wide cracks, up to 30 feet long, appeared in the ceilings.

    Five older buildings along historic Olvera Street suffered "thousands of dollars" in damage, according to Mario Valadez, managing director of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Inc.

    Hardest hit was Avila Adobe House, at 153 years the oldest building in Los Angeles.  There was severe damage to five rooms where the adobe walls and plaster fell.  This was the first time an earthquake had damaged the house.

    At Sepulveda House, the oldest two-story house in Los Angeles, a second-story brick facing fell and crushed an awning and balcony.

    In Olvera Street's San Antonio Winery, hundreds of bottles fell from their racks and smashed on the floor, leaving the heady odor of wine hanging over pools of the liquid and piles of glass.

    Cornices and bricks from the rears of the buildings piled up at Main and Macy streets.

    At Los Angeles City College, Di Vinci Hall and Jefferson Hall were closed due to serious flooding from broken water lines.  However, the college remained open.

    The fire in the Zelzah Avenue shopping center forced police from the Devonshire Division to evacuate their temporary headquarters at 10801 Zelzah Ave. and move to the Knollwood Country Club.

    Two hundred youngsters were evacuated fro the Sylmar Juvenile County Detention Center and taken to Valley Services Center in Van Nuys.

The Archive:
The Volunteers|Era of the Horses
|Chief Engineers |History of the Black Firemen
|Fire Apparatus |Fire Boats|Famous Fires
|The Last Alarm

Copyright 1999 All Rights Reserved.