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‘Abject terror gripped me’: Terrifying memories of the Sylmar earthquake of 1971

Sylmar earthquake
Vehicles sit smashed after the Feb. 9, 1971, Sylmar earthquake, which had a magnitude of 6.6.
(Boris Yaro / Los Angeles Times)
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At the northeastern edge of the San Fernando Valley, the shaking began at 42 seconds after 6 a.m. For many residents in the new suburbs that had exploded around Southern California after World War II, it was the strongest earthquake they’d ever felt. And for some, it was a moment they would never forget — even 50 years later.

The Sylmar earthquake, as it would become known, was one of the worst in modern Los Angeles history, killing 64 people, injuring 2,543 and causing $553 million in damage.

Here are some memories from Times readers about that day; they have been edited in some places for clarity.

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Panorama City

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I was 10 years old.

I was awakened by my bed violently shaking and things falling off the dresser. A couple of hours later, my mother, aunt and I headed up Interstate 5 toward Sylmar to check on my grandfather, who we were not able to reach by phone. We heard that Olive View Medical Center had collapsed, so we didn’t know what to expect. We dodged potholes on the freeway and the surface streets in our VW bug.

We made it to my grandfather’s house and made it inside with the hidden key, since no one answered the door. We made our way up to his bedroom, but all the furniture had slid up against the door. We were able to force the door open, but he wasn’t in there.... We checked the entire house and then we left. It was a very surreal experience. Throughout the next few weeks, I panicked every time I felt an aftershock.

As a 10-year-old, it was a rude awakening to know that the earth could move like that. Later that day, my grandfather came to our house.... He made it out of his house just fine, but it had several thousand dollars in damage.

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Pomona

On that morning, I was asleep in my bed. I had just turned 6. It was my first earthquake. When the shaking started, my mother ran into my room, snatched me out of bed and carried me to the doorway.

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The window in my bedroom faced east, and the morning sunrise had turned the sky into a crimson orange matte on the horizon. In front of that backdrop were the telephone wires that hung between the poles across our backyard. They were undulating in a crazy dance that seemed to go on forever. It mesmerized me.

That morning has etched itself into my memory. To this day, the mention of the word Sylmar or a sunrise/sunset matching that color triggers that vision in my mind.

The Times recalls how the quake that rumbled through L.A. on Feb. 9, 1971, woke California up to a largely unfamiliar danger.

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Woodland Hills

I was 10, ensconced with my family in Woodland Hills, and the quake woke me up. I shared a room with my brother, on the bottom bunk, and I raced to the door where my mom was positioned across the hall, yelling, “Get in the doorway!”

My sisters, who shared a room at the opposite end of that same hallway, sounded like two alley cats, yelling, “Let me down, let me down!” My little sister awoke from a dream where she thought my older sister was shaking all the change out of her pockets. My dad was already up, and we convened in the living room to assess the damage. Our house survived intact, albeit a bit cracked in spots.

We turned on the TV and learned that a man had been squashed on the freeway, one lone guy driving to work at the wrong place at the wrong time.

That stayed with me.

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Sun Valley

Feb. 9, 1971, is a date etched in my memory forever. I was 14, a ninth-grader at Sun Valley Junior High in the San Fernando Valley. It was dark, early morning, when the shaking and roar happened suddenly, waking me out of a deep sleep.

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Then the contents of the closet next to me dumped onto the bed and floor.

I had never experienced an earthquake and my parents told my brother and I to go outside, which I now know is dangerous. They were from New Jersey and had never been through something like this. We waited on the driveway and talked with the neighbors.

There was an eerie, dead silence once the main quake stopped and the sun started to rise.

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Canoga Park

Abject terror gripped me that Tuesday morning, as I awakened to a horrific sound of wall vibrating and dishes crashing. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard, but I knew instantly it was an earthquake. It had to be. Nothing else could possibly make the house shake that hard.

For me, this occurred within the context of ongoing predictions of California breaking away and sliding into the ocean. As a very young teen at the time, I didn’t place much credence in such things, but for a few seconds that morning, I feared drowning in the ocean as much as the house collapsing on me.

When the rumbling ended, I joined my family in our backyard. We lived in Canoga Park, just north of Pierce College. I stared into our swimming pool, a roughly rectangular bowl with the deep end to the north. In the shallow end, the pool steps were just in front of my parents’ bedroom. The water level had dropped more than 3 feet. Looking up to the roof, there was a clearly visible water line near the peak. A 15-foot tidal wave had been launched from our pool, crashing on the roof and flooding my parents’ room.

It was at this point that I realized I was wearing only underwear and a T-shirt, yet I was comfortably warm, a strange sensation for a February morning. I reached down and touched the concrete deck. It was warm. The energy from the quake had noticeably raised the ground temperature.

We then surveyed the house and yard. Fortunately, other than broken dishes and emptied bookshelves, we were completely unscathed.

When I reflect back on that unforgettable morning, I recall most vividly the sound, the fear and the amazing pool tidal wave.

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Santa Monica

I lived in an apartment in Santa Monica with my mother. I was 22 and had never been in a large earthquake. When I awoke the shaking was incredibly violent, not like anything I had ever felt. I now know that because our apartment building was on pillars the shaking effect was intensified. I jumped up and ran toward my mother’s bedroom, unaware that she had jumped out of bed and was running toward me.

We came around a corner at the same time. I can remember seeing her coming at me, but then it’s a blank. My mother later told me that we collided violently. I was no longer fully conscious. She carried me to the front door. It’s at that point I again have a direct memory. We were about to exit the apartment, counter to what is recommended today, when the shaking stopped. I was extremely traumatized.

The earthquake reinforced a growing belief in me that the world was a very unkind place.

The magnitude 6.6 Sylmar earthquake shook Southern California on Feb. 9, 1971, causing significant damage and 64 deaths. What few realized at the time was how close it came to being far more catastrophic.

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Mid-City

It is one of my earliest memories engraved in my brain. I was 6 years old, living in a second-floor apartment near Western Avenue and Venice Boulevard. I guess watching my parents equally deep in terror scarred me.

As we looked outside the window, we saw flashes of bright blue gas in the sky. I found out it was subterranean gas being released by the earth.

My mother later told me she thought it was the reckoning and we were all going to heaven.

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Arleta

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It was 10 days after my 9th birthday. My father got up every workday and did his morning exercises and that would wake me up, so I was awake when the quake hit.

My bed rolled all the way across my bedroom to under the window. I had closed my bedroom drapes the night before for the first time in weeks and that kept the window glass from falling in instead of out. That probably kept me alive.

The only things that broke in our house were that window and a bottle of soy sauce.

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Westside

I was a junior in high school. I awoke to find everything shaking. My headboard contained a small bookshelf, and paperbacks were flying out of their proper places and peppering my head.

I remember putting a pillow over my head to protect myself.

In my sleep-induced stupor, I distinctly recall thinking to myself, “This is the end. Someone has dropped the Big One and we’re all going to die.” I lay there looking out the window, waiting for the inevitable brilliant flash of light.

Suddenly my brain began to function properly and I realized that the flash comes first, then the shaking, if this had really been a nuclear weapon. When I realized that it was “only an earthquake,” I was actually relieved.

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