A Look Back At The Big Quake That Shook Burbank 40 Years Ago


February 9, marked the 40th anniversary of the 1971 Sylmar Earthquake.  Hard to believe that it was 40 years ago, as it is nearly as clear in my mind today as when I experienced it. I guess one just doesn’t forget something that scary.

Striking at 6:00.55 a.m. the earthquake caught me asleep in my bed. Waking instantly, I was immediately aware that it was a big quake.  The wild, side to side swaying of our house and the roar like a freight train coming through my room was another dead giveaway.  Rushing down the hallway to check on my younger brother, the quake slammed me into the linen closet door with its diamond-shaped  knob, leaving a small bleeding gash in my forearm.

My family stood together looking out the window at the flashes from power lines in the pre-dawn sky accompanied by the noise of high-pressure steam venting from emergency valves at Burbank’s power plant.  To our horror, 6 ft. high waves were splashing in our nearly new swimming pool.  Then we felt the water on our bare feet.  To our relief, not the pool, but the 10 gallon aquarium in the room, had splashed water on the carpeted floor. An even greater relief was that the pool rode out the quake undamaged.

As a free-lance newspaper photographer, I immediate took to the streets of Burbank to survey the damage.  As my friend Bill Stevens and I drove around town, it quickly became evident which houses had swimming pools—there was water flowing down the their driveways. The most damage we saw was at the old Pacific Evangelical Home on Glenoaks, which was later razed and replaced with the modern Pacific Home that now stands on that spot.

Police officers were out in force, including Chief Rex Andrews in his coveralls with “POLICE” emblazoned on the back. Our own meeting with the police came a little later that morning when we stopped at the corner of Avon St. and Magnolia Blvd.  My friend, shoe store owner Les Langley had flagged us down, inviting us to come in and see what the quake had done to his shelves of inventory.

Hundreds of shoes and boxes, shaken off the shelves by the quake were piled on the floor. As we took pictures and Les showed us around, Police Reserve Captain Starr came through the front door with his gun drawn.   Apparently mistaking us for looters (armed with cameras and strobes?) he was ready to shot us, until he recognized Les and put the gun down.

One of the most amazing, and scary things we saw that morning, was the way people drove.  The traffic signals were out, but nobody seemed to notice. Back then there was “Lockheed Traffic” each workday morning and afternoon, when the shifts changed at the plant.  Drawn by the sound of crashing cars, we stood near the intersection of Verdugo Ave. and Buena Vista St. and watched as drivers not knowing how to deal with an uncontrolled intersection crashed into to each other several times that morning.

I remember watching coverage of the 6.6 magnitude quake on television, as rescue workers tried to find survivors in ruins of the old San Fernando Veterans’ Hospita were 49 people died.  We wondered just how strong the quake must have been to have virtually destroyed the new Olive View Hospital, where 3 people died; and the huge overhead connectors where the 5 and 14 freeways meet.   The very same connectors fell 23 years later in the Northridge Quake.
The next big quake is coming.  I used to think one came every 19 years due to the 1933 Long Beach Quake, the 1952 Tehachapi Quake, and the 1971 Sylmar Quake, but then that Northridge Quake waited 23 years.  So by my highly un-scientific calculations, the next big quake should have been in 2009, or will be in 2013 or 2017.   I don’t think anyone can yet accurately predict the big quakes, but I do know it is a very good idea to be prepared.