Shortly after 6 a.m. on Feb. 9, 1971, the Sylmar quake stopped the clocks at Olive View Hospital. For those who still work there . . . : The Shaking Never Stops

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Reilly is a regular contributor to Valley View.

It is 20 years since the people of Sylmar were jarred awake by the violent shifting of the Earth’s plates beneath their sleepy mountainside community.

At the veterans hospital there, two major buildings collapsed, killing or fatally injuring 49 patients and employees. The hospital was destroyed, never to be rebuilt. The land now, fittingly, has become Veterans Memorial Park.

Less than 3 miles away, at Olive View Hospital, two of its buildings also came down. Miraculously, most of the patients and staff lived to tell their stories. And they haven’t forgotten.


Shortly after 6 a.m. on Feb. 9, 1971, Douglas Atterberry, now a semi-retired physician who works part time at Northridge Hospital Medical Center, was in the emergency room of Olive View Hospital tending to an asthmatic patient.

With the doctor and the asthmatic were a nurse and medical technician, who, like Atterberry, had pulled the night shift and would be going home after they stabilized the patient.

Suddenly the patient’s rasping was drowned out by what sounded like freight trains crashing.

Atterberry, who had grown up in Pasadena and experienced other, milder earthquakes, thought the place was under nuclear attack.

“Then the floor started pitching and rolling like a speedboat slicing through high wake,” he remembers. “I tried to get under a nearby desk to get away from the falling debris.”

It was a good thing he didn’t. The desk bounced around the room like a tennis ball before collapsing under bombardment from the crumbling ceiling.

The noise and destruction seemed to go on forever, terrifying these people who were under five floors of a building that was coming down on their heads.

Finally the shaking stopped and the only sound was of plaster continuing to fall.

In the dark caused by a power failure, Atterberry grabbed an otoscope--the tiny light instrument doctors use to examine the ear--and tried to lead the group out of the rubble. The patient followed the rest, literally frightened out of his asthma attack.

Atterberry led the group toward the light created by a wall that had caved in. They climbed through the rubble to the outside and looked around.

“Olive View is on a hill that looks over the Valley, and all I could see for miles around were small fires caused by gas main explosions,” Atterberry says.

As the group turned to look at the hospital, they saw devastation everywhere.

The 4-month-old, six-story, 850-bed, $23.5-million main building from which they had just escaped was in shambles. The four towers that anchored the facility were all down, and the rest of the building had moved four feet on its foundation.

The second story of the 50-bed psychiatric unit behind the main facility was now resting on the collapsed first floor.

Within minutes, the 20 or 30 nurses on duty had gotten most of the nearly 500 patients down the stairwells that were still standing and out onto the lawns that surrounded the buildings.

“The nurses were totally in command and had the patients, who were well enough to help, leading or carrying the other patients to safety,” Atterberry says.

Bruce Picken, a Washington State native who at the time was a young psychiatrist at the hospital and is now the facility’s medical director, had been awakened in his Sherman Oaks home by the 6.6-magnitude quake.

After making sure that his wife, Marilyn, and their five children were all right, Picken got into his Plymouth station wagon and sped up the San Diego Freeway.

“When I got up near San Fernando Road about 7 o’clock, the bridges were not passable, so I left my car and started running,” he remembers.

When he got to the top of the hill and could see the hospital, he was stunned.

“It looked like a war zone,” he says. “There were patients everywhere and nurses trying to keep order. The buildings looked like they had been bombed.”

He went around to look at his psychiatric unit and found that his office, which had been on the first floor of the two-story building, was now 12 inches high. “The two-story building had become a one-story building,” he says.

Picken hurriedly checked on his psychiatric patients and was relieved to find things fairly calm.

“At that point there was nothing we could really do. Communications were out and we had no way to tell the outside world that we needed help,” he says.

His main concern, and that of everyone at the site, was that there were people still in the building who might need help, but there was no way to check.

In the final count, three were dead, including two people who were on life-support systems that failed when the auxiliary generators didn’t kick in. The other death was that of the head ambulance driver who was in the area Atterberry and his group had been in. The driver was crushed by a falling wall.

By 8 a.m.--after crews in circling rescue helicopters had seen the ruins of the hospital and the rows of patients on the lawns--ambulances, buses and other vehicles began arriving to take patients to other county hospitals in the Los Angeles area, with 150 going to County-USC and the rest of the 323 to Rancho Los Amigos, Long Beach Hospital, UCLA Medical Center and Camarillo State Hospital.

Nurses and other medical personnel were being similarly dispatched to help.

“I remember one patient later recalling that he had been on one of the upper floors of one of the towers on that morning. He had been watching the NASA space landing on television when his nurse told him to come into the main part of the building to take his medicine,” Atterberry says.

The patient wasn’t fast enough and when the earthquake hit, he rode the tower down to the ground.

When he woke up, he was at County General with about 100 stitches in his body and his same nurse, who had also been transported to the facility, was leaning over him anxiously.

Bronx native Fred Auerbach, now director of social work at Olive View Medical Center, was still asleep in his Beverly Hills apartment when the earthquake hit. He had little experience with earthquakes and he didn’t know what to do or expect.

Once the rolling stopped, his wife, Ruth, a teacher, headed for school, where she knew her students would be anxious. Auerbach headed for the hospital, where he was a substance-abuse counselor. Like the others trying to make their way to the facility, he had to abandon his car, a ’68 Volkswagen bug, and walk the last mile or so.

“What struck me, when I finally got there about 8 o’clock, was that everything was so orderly. The nurses had done a wonderful job. There was really nothing we could do but look around and try to help out.”

He sought out people he knew and remembers wandering around numbly. “All kinds of people from the community were arriving, trying to help,” he says. “I remember a Sparkletts truck pulling up in case we needed water, and a bakery truck driver handing out food to everyone.”

Tony Jiminez was one of those who tried to help.

Jiminez had left his San Fernando home to report to his construction site job. When the quake hit, he went back to the company office and, with his brother, Joe Hinjosa, drove a water tanker truck to Sylmar to see if the water was needed there.

Back at the Jiminez home, his 14-year-old daughter, Minu, who was born and raised in San Fernando, was in the bed she shared with her 5-year-old sister. The girl, now Minu Chagolla, an administrative assistant at Olive View, remembers rolling over on the younger child when the violent shaking began. She was riding out the quake when she was alarmed by her mother wailing from another bedroom.

“I have two younger brothers and three sisters and we were all trying to see if she was hurt,” Chagolla says. “She was just frightened. I had to tell her that if she wasn’t hurt, she should stop screaming because she was scaring the rest of us half to death.”

Chagolla, now the mother of two children, says she understands her mother was worried about the kids.

For Kay Hynes and Rita Thayer, the quake also hit home.

Hynes, a California native who is now a volunteer at the hospital, was living then, as she is now, in a Sylmar house just a few miles from the hospital when the quake struck.

Born in Culver City and a resident of Los Angeles most of her life, she thought she was earthquake savvy, but this one was different.

“It wasn’t that the house fell down, or anything,” she remembers. “It was that we were really frightened. The utilities were all out. There were fires around the area. There were looters almost before the quake ended. All the block walls in the neighborhood had fallen down and our home’s foundation had a huge crack in it. Everything had fallen out of the cupboards and off the shelves and the house was a mess.”

Hynes, her husband, four sons and the dogs slept in the family’s two cars for several nights before they could get the house cleared out and move back in.

“We were lucky because my husband worked for the Department of Water and Power and knew how to feed the water from the pool into the house. We were the only ones in the neighborhood who had water. But we shared,” Hynes says.

Rita Thayer, who was and still is administrative assistant to Picken, had just started working at Olive View a couple of months before.

When the quake hit, she was in bed in her rented, four-bedroom Granada Hills house, thinking about getting up and getting her youngsters off to school.

The divorced mother of six had had no experience with earthquakes in her native Cleveland.

Once the shaking stopped, she ran around the kitchen of the single-story house, collecting crackers and bottles of water and grapefruit juice. “It was all I could think of to do.”

Within half an hour she would be homeless.

Police, notified that the Van Norman Dam in Granada Hills might give way, went through her neighborhood telling people to evacuate.

Thayer and her family grabbed their dogs and drove to Granada Hills High School. They were new to the area, knew few people and had nowhere else to go.

“We took some clothing and dog food and we just left,” she says.

She was amazed, and still is, by the kindness of strangers.

“As we sat in the auditorium of the school, wondering what on earth was going to happen to us, people from the neighborhood came into the auditorium, went up on the stage and offered their home to anyone who needed shelter,” she recalls.

“Each person would say how much room they had, where their house was and how many people they could take. I will never forget that.”

One of the people who took the stage was an acquaintance of Thayer’s--a man who worked at CSUN where Thayer had been employed before leaving for Olive View.

He and his wife put up the family for several days, while the dogs stayed at school.

“Someone had been smart enough to set up, on one of the tennis courts, a kind of camp for the animals,” she says. “We visited our two every day and fed and walked them. They had a wonderful time playing with the other dogs.”

Thayer didn’t return to work at the hospital for almost a week, and what a week it had been.

Cherry Uyeda was a new clerk in the personnel department at the hospital when the earthquake hit. Twenty years later she is still there. She now works in public relations, but still occupies the same office she did then. It is in an old bungalow on the grounds, left over from the days when Olive View had been a tuberculosis sanitarium.

The earthquake had awakened Uyeda in the Encino house, where she still lives with her husband, Jaxon.

The California native knew exactly what the shaking was. Her first thought after things stopped rattling and falling, she says, was “What’s going to happen to my hospital?”

After she quickly dressed and was driven as close as her husband could get, she hurried up the hill until she could see the hospital. Then she stopped short. “It was bad.”

It was her job to make sure personnel got their checks, and that Tuesday was pay day, she says.

To accommodate everyone, Uyeda and the rest of the department conducted business al fresco. “I sat at a card table in the parking lot west of the main building near the fire station giving out the checks,” she remembers. “It was very strange, and it was very sad.”

For her, the worst was yet to come.

“I had to help all the personnel get relocated,” Uyeda says. “It was a real ordeal because we had to go by seniority as well as job title in relocating people to a new county facility.”

Some of the staff were reassigned to places 60 miles from home. Uyeda said that was traumatic, as was the loss of their new “family.”

“We were all really tight-knit. We were a brand-new facility and things were state-of-the-art and we were proud of the hospital and the people chosen to work here. It was hard to be sent far away to a place that might not have been like that,” she says.

Some personnel were so unnerved--less by the quake than the circumstances that followed--that psychiatric help was offered.

After years of governmental wrangling over how and if the facility should be rebuilt, Olive View was finally completed, reopening in May, 1987.

It was an emotional day for the people who returned.

Many of them had been working together at the mid-Valley facility the county had opened after the quake in Van Nuys.

Others had kept in touch, hoping for the day the staff could be together again.

Now the hospital is preparing to observe the 20th anniversary of the quake with a fair this weekend aimed at helping the members of the community with earthquake preparedness.