Faulty Memory of the Day the Earth Didn't Stand Still

Fifty-two years ago at 5:55 p.m. in Long Beach, the San Andreas fault twitched and streets cracked open or became corrugated, many oil wells on Signal Hill burst into flames, buildings collapsed and people died.

I was lying on my mother's bed listening to Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, on the radio. My favorite program was to follow at 6 p.m.--Little Orphan Annie, with the inimitable Punjab, the giant Hindu magician, as my favorite character. My parents were dressing for a party.

With a tremendous roar and clatter, our house shuddered violently.

"Get out!" cried my mother, "the furnace is blowing up."

We raced out of the house in time to see a brick wall across the street crumble in a puff of dust. An ominous silence settled over the neighborhood. Then came voices, shocked, crying, incredulous. The earthquake of March 10, 1933, had struck Long Beach and adjacent communities. It caused property damage as far away as Santa Ana. Nearly all of Long Beach's schools were severely damaged.

I didn't hear subsequent 15-minute programs of Little Orphan Annie for several days after that. We spent the nights in our cars, as did many residents, afraid to enter our homes, except to hurry in and out for blankets, clothing and food. Tremor followed tremor for 60 hours, and when the earth stilled again, 90 people were dead, 700 injured.

I was 12 years old, an age when bizarre stories had strong impact on the imagination. How my contemporaries and I relished the tales, mostly word-of-mouth, that sped throughout the city with telegraphic speed. There was the one of a man whose leg was caught in a crack that had opened and closed on it. The man, wild with fear, it was said, had pulled off his leg and hopped away on the other.

A more believable story was of a man who had darted naked out of an apartment building. Then he had dashed back in to get something to wear, emerging with his hat on and nothing else.

A story that was spread the farthest was that the walls of Seaside Hospital (where I was born) had fallen in, killing 12 patients. It was carried in newspapers and on radios around the world. I remember that story, too. I believed it 52 years ago. I have continued to believe it for 52 years, until just the other day when my wife discovered a yellowed newspaper clipping from the Independent-Press Telegram in an old book she'd bought.

The story celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Long Beach quake. It was written by Vera Williams, a veteran writer I knew and respected when I was a reporter on the old Long Beach Independent, before it was merged with the Press Telegram and the Long Beach Sun was closed.

Vera says that an unidentified and thoroughly drunk reporter was passing through Compton on his way to the beach when the quake hit. His condition prevented him from recognizing it as an earthquake. He barreled on to Long Beach and passed Seaside Hospital. Walls of the surgical and obstetrical departments had fallen. Broken water pipes had flooded the basement and corpses had been carried from the hospital morgue in the basement and laid on the lawn beside the hospital.

"The reporter saw the shattered walls; he counted 12 bodies. He weaved his way to a 'live' telephone, called a news service and his story that Seaside walls had fallen in Long Beach, killing 12 people, promptly hit the newspapers and radios around the world," Vera relates.

The story was on the wires before the earthquake story broke. The unknown reporter, who spent part of the night passed out in the Press Telegram-Sun newsroom, says Vera, scooped the world's press on an earthquake story when he didn't know there was an earthquake.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World