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  • The 1971 Sylmar Earthquake

    A friend asked me to write down memories of my experience of the 1971 Sylmar Earthquake. Actually, earthquakes in general for a kindle project. Other victims were given a deadline for submission of the Earthquake project. This is one of my experiences:

    In 1963 our family moved from Granada Hills, California to a brand new suburb in Sylmar California. We moved into a small 3 bedroom, 2-bathroom home overlooking the San Fernando Valley.

    I was 13 years old when I was rudely awoken by what sounded like a freight train coming towards our home. Once I realized that the San Fernando train does not pass by our home, the earth slammed violently out of control. I could barely keep from falling out of my twin bed being viciously bounced around and off of the wall. I shared a room with my younger sister whose screaming only made my fear worsen. I screamed back at her “Shut up! Shut up! The walls shook brutally, the crashing and breaking sounds were deafening. I watched in confusion as my bedroom floor moved like large waves of water towards me. Then a big antique dresser with a swinging mirror began riding the waves towards me and slammed over me, just as I hid under the covers. The dresser and mirror broke over me, cutting my arm as I protected my head. Our closet doors slid open and its contents began pelting us from above. It seemed like an eternity as the world continued to shake fiercely. There was no possible way that we could have jumped out of our beds to stand or run, if we wanted. When the sound had initially woken me, I had opened my eyes to a clear sunny day shining through my bedroom window. By the time the world stopped shaking, it was pitch black and deathly silent.

    My sister and I stumbled out of bed, over broken glass, furniture and other items strewn on the floor. We followed the sound of our mother’s voice to the hallway. I managed to pry open our bedroom door; the ground had lifted under our door obstructing it. My parents had made it out of their bedroom from across the hall. We fumbled barefoot through the hall and through more broken glass towards my older sister's room. The smell of a broken bottle of Witch Hazel hung heavy in the air from the bathroom on the right. My big sister had somehow jumped over furniture blocking her bedroom door and met us in the hallway. We were so grateful to realize that we were all alive. We held onto each other while my father led us to the back of the house. Our destination was the back door exit with a sliding glass door. We slid the glass door all the way open, pulled the curtains over the glass and held on tight. It was the only place where the 5 of us could hold onto each other during the after shocks. We could hold onto the metal frame of the door, nothing could fall on us there. In the silence we questioned whether anyone else was alive. Where were our dogs? I have no idea when the after shocks calmed enough for the dust to begin to settle and the sun began to light the way. It seemed as if the dust just fell all at once. Then we started to hear crying and screaming in the neighborhood. The sound was music to my ears and I was filled with happiness. We were no longer alone.

    Seeing each other for the first time in the light, we were a mess. We were rumbled, cut, tears streaked our face and we were dusty. My father being an ex military man went right into action. He turned off the gas in the outside main valve, filled our bathtub with water, managed to locate some tools, shovels, trashcans and put us all to work. We started in the kitchen and began shoveling piles of broken glass and food into the trash. Anything not broken and edible was put aside (mainly canned food made it through the quake). Everything had fallen from the shelves into one big pile in the center of the room. We would scream with each aftershock but we had to keep cleaning. We needed to have a clear exit, find supplies for food and survival while there was still light. The next step was checking on our neighbors and helping in anyway that we could. We were stuck for the day in what ever we had worn to bed. I was wearing my father’s oversized cotton pajamas tied at the waist. Why? I have no idea. I think my younger sister was wearing another pair of dad’s pajamas too. It must have been a trend. We searched and called in vain but could not find our Labrador Retriever named “Cat”. The brick wall had fallen on his doghouse and we did not know if he was under the ruble. Our Chihuahua “Pepe” was missing too. We could not get into the garage to get to her doghouse. The freezer had blocked the door and we would try the exterior door later.

    My father located a transistor radio and we listened to the news. The thing that stands out most in my mind is that we were listening live to a reporter who was onsite at the Veteran’s Hospital. As he was speaking, we were listening and watching from our front yard as a section of Veteran’s Hospital fell. I swear we saw something crashing down from where we stood. It was surreal to hear it at the same time on the radio. We were also informed that rescue efforts to the Sylmar neighborhoods would take days just getting the roads cleared. Looking up and down our street it appeared that we were in a war torn country. The asphalt on the streets had cracked and been blown apart. There were buckles and cracks in the ground and sidewalks everywhere. I wondered how they could ever get to us. Let alone, how could we get out? Our Oldsmobile car was lifted 2-3 feet on its front end in the driveway. The earth had bowed under it shortening the driveway. Everyone in the neighborhood had been injured one way or another but we were all walking.

    We found our Chihuahua “Pepe” in an overturned dresser drawer, in the garage. How she got in there we can only guess. She missed being crushed by a large freezer as it fell over and so many other items from the shelves above.

    We were trapped in Sylmar for 3 days with no electricity, running water, phones, food would start going bad without refrigeration. The neighborhood came together to feed each other. We must have had a generator because I remember my mother cooking on our front lawn for the neighbors in an electric skillet. Everyone brought something to add to the meal. I have no other memory of shared neighborhood meals from thereon. Frankly, I doubt we had much of an appetite our nerves were so on edge. I do believe many of us felt safer outdoors.

    I have no idea how many days it took before we heard water would be available at a certain corner near Hubbard Street. We stood in line for water held in milk cartons. We were given one container per person. It was delivered by truck, in red and white packaging labeled COKE. Thank you Coke! You were the only free necessity offered during the disaster. I also remember walking to Vons Market for food but can’t remember much about the event, except for standing in a line once again.

    Our Labrador Retriever “Cat” showed up 3 days later, wearing the grime of the disaster. He was hungry and deeply excited to see his family. He must have heard the earthquake coming and jumped his 6ft. chain linked fence, then jumped the back wall and ran to the nearby canyon. I took him there regularly and he would have found plenty of water. We were all reunited in the end.

    Once the roads were cleared sightseers began driving into our neighborhoods. Looting became an issue and the man across the street began carrying his gun in a holster at his hip. Our bathrooms were unusable and the sewage system was on the verge of exploding. Each neighborhood was given an outhouse that would be consistently turned on its side by intruders. To add to our frustration, we were provided with a phone booth, also at the bottom of the hill but it too was regularly vandalized. We were not provided with enough security and people didn’t line up with financial handouts, clothing or cooked meals. Out of pure exhaustion many neighborhoods started posting hand made signs saying “Sightseers Go Home!” At an early age, I realized that no wall, window or door could go unbroken. Sadly, it seemed that the outsiders thought “NOTHING” belonging to the victims of the earthquake were sacred, including our dignity.

    Posted by Audrey B 12/4/12
    Photo #1 That is me in the blue dress, my little sister is sitting and my older sister is on right. My best friend (Roseanne) and next door neighbor is behind me. The photo was taken in 1963 in a new suburb of Sylmar, California on Easter Sunday. The veteran's hospital can be seen framed between the tree branches at the base of the hill.
    Photo #2 Pepe & Cat
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