The Mil & Aero Blog
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
  Sylmar Earthquake 40th anniversary: the day is still seared in memory

Posted by John Keller

Forty years ago this morning was one of the most memorable earthquakes I ever experienced -- and this is coming from a California native. It was the Sylmar Earthquake, which hit southern California at 6:01 a.m. pacific time on 9 Feb. 1971. The initial Sylmar quake and its aftershocks killed 65 people and caused more than half a billion dollars damage, demolishing two hospitals, dropping 12 Los Angeles freeway overpasses, and damaging the picturesque old buildings at Los Angeles High School beyond repair.

I was an 11-year-old 6th grader that morning, and I remember waking up feeling like I was in the backseat of a Ford Bronco in the midst of an off-road race. My bed wasn't just shaking; it was jumping up and down, leaving the floor. I felt like the quake just wouldn't stop. It was easily the worst one I'd ever been up to that time. I think it still is.

I lived in El Segundo near LAX at the time, where damage wasn't severe. The worst effects of the quake were north of us in the San Fernando Valley, where near the epicenter in Sylmar, the Olive View Hospital was knocked off its foundation, collapsing the first floor of the building. The Veterans Administration Hospital in San Fernando collapsed in the quake. In both hospitals 49 people died.

Most of the other fatalities happened in freeway overpass collapses, including the one connecting the Interstate 5 freeway and the Foothill Freeway, and the recently completed Newhall Pass interchange connecting Interstate 5 and the Antelope Valley Freeway. Strangely, the rebuilt Newhall Pass interchanged collapsed again 23 years later in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake.

The Sylmar quake also caused Los Angeles High School to be condemned, demolished, and rebuilt. It was one of the prettiest old high schools around then; today it's generic and ugly. Other oldtimers might remember a popular Friday night television show in the early '70s called Room 222, in which the outside shots were of Los Angeles High School.

In L.A. after that earthquake, we used to talk about "February Ninth" like we talk about 9/11 today. One of the best conversation starters for years afterward was "where were you when the earthquake hit?"

There have been other, more notable earthquakes in California before and after the Sylmar quake. The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake probably tops the list. Others include the 1933 Long Beach quake, the 1989 San Francisco quake, and the 1994 Northridge quake.

No others, however, were as personally terrifying for me than the one in 1971. I think that quake, and the date February 9, will always be seared in my memory.
I am glad to know that I am not the only one with February 9th on my mind today. I was just a couple of years younger than you, living in the San Fernando Valley when the quake hit. I recollect loosing my entire silk worm experiment for my 4th grade class project. It was smashed and soaked when an aquarium came off the table both were sitting on and hit the floor. School was cancelled for the better part of a week until building inspections were completed to determine that the portable "bungalow" trailers were safe for occupancy.
This event has led to a life long interest in building safety and seismicity.
On the morning of February 9th, 1971, I lived in Granada Hills off Knollwood Dr. on the top side of the dam. The alarms had jusy gone off at 6:00AM, and we were just opening our eyes when I heard a train coming down the street. I have been on many trains, and know what they sound like, but this one was coming down a street with no tracks.The train went thru our living room...everything that could break, broke...Every dish & glass,the refrigerator tipped over and spilled everything out, windows fell out,cement walls fell onto our car, all the lamps fell & broke and when the power came back on for a few seconds, we have fires start on the rug. It was by far the most powerful, intense earthquake I have ever felt. I truely believed in the moment that this was the end of the world...But, since this event. I have lived through many quakes (most of which I laugh at, compared to my Sylmar quake)and have spent the last fourty years trying to educate people on being prepared, having food and water, and a plan to evacuate the family, kids, pets, elders, ect...
I now work for a company called "Survivor Industries" with supplies peolpe from all walks of life with Emergency Medical Supplies. Food and water packed in metal foil packages with a five year lifespan. The various kits contain everything you may need to survive a earthquake or major event, with your focus being on your families survival, and believe me, you will not have much left to use if it is a "Sylmar" size quake...We had no water for a month, no power for 3 weeks, and gas took even longer.

So, Happy Aniversary Sylmar Quake...I am ready for whatever comes next, because I am now prepared for the worst.

Please visit my company site at

JT Brooke
I'm not sure where I was or where in the valley I was living exactly. Most likely in the Van Nuys area.
I was working in the music business as I am now.
I remember the havoc and loss of lives.

It was one hellofa quake.
Thanks for mentioning Los Angeles High School. I attended that school in the early 1970's. I remember going to school on February 9th, only to be told by school officials to go home due to the severe damage to some of the school's older buildings. About two weeks later, the entire student body was being bussed to Fairfax High School to finish the school year since LA High was too badly damaged.

LA High has not been the same since its stately main building had to be torn down because of the quake. Oh, well. I still have my memories of that fateful day. Thanks for the article.
I remember the 1971 earthquake like it was yesterday. I was 13, made 14 in March. I remember my dad running into our room with my 3 1/2 month old sister under his arm like a football.. telling us to get out of bed, we had bunk beds, and taking us (my siblings) into the living room and making us get under the table. It felt like a giant was kicking the house with his boots on. I remember after it was over, going back into our bedroom to find our mirror on the floor in a zillion pieces. My mom worked grave yard at St.Francis hospital, of course there was no electricity so we couldn't contact her, it was scary, she called to let us know she was ok as soon as the power was back on, she said the IV bottles were clanging together and those big heavy doors were swinging open and shut. Schools were closed for about a week, I was excited to go back and talk about it with my friends, go figure.. yeah 2/9/71 is etched in my memory for was a scary and exciting day for a 13 year old. Selene James
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