50 years later: Survivors, first responders recall frightening moment Sylmar earthquake hit

ByDallas Raines and Lisa Bartley KABC logo
Wednesday, February 10, 2021
Survivors, first responders recall moment Sylmar quake hit
50 years since the massive Sylmar earthquake rocked the region, first responders and survivors reflect on the terrifying moment and the damage that was left behind.

SYLMAR, LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Cynthia Smith was just 19-years-old when catastrophe struck at the old Olive View Hospital in Sylmar back in 1971. She was a nurse's aide and one of a handful of staff assigned to watch over 50 psychiatric patients in two locked wards overnight.

"I thought, well -- I'm dead," Smith tells Eyewitness News of the jolt that collapsed two wings of the hospital. "The second floor became the first floor."

The Sylmar-San Fernando earthquake struck just after 6 a.m. on Feb. 9, 1971. Three people died at the hospital, including an ambulance driver. Fortunately, the first floor was empty at the time of the quake.

"It just hit hard and fast," recalls Jim Hazard, a retired nurse who was also working that day in the other collapsed wing of the hospital.

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"I didn't know if it was a thermonuclear explosion or an earthquake," Hazard says. "The building started to collapse, pancaked down to the first floor... and you could feel the sense of falling like you were in an elevator."

The scene was even worse at the old Veterans Administration Hospital three miles to the east. The concrete structure, built in 1926, was reduced to rubble. More than forty people died.

"The whole building was a pile of bricks and the roof was what we call a 'pancake collapse,' it came straight down," remembers retired Los Angeles City Fire Assistant Chief Frank Borden.

"These were veterans in the hospital," says Borden, who notes that rescue techniques and equipment have come a long way since 1971.

Borden went on to dedicate much of his career with the LAFD to disaster preparedness and emergency response.

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The quake took its toll on our freeways. Six freeway bridges collapsed on the 210/5 interchange, two more on the 5/14 interchange and another at the 5/405. Two men lost their lives when the pickup truck they were riding in was crushed by tons of concrete.

Caltrans tells Eyewitness News it's spent nearly $14 billion since 1971 on seismic research and the retrofitting of 4,931 bridges across the state. Still, Caltrans warns that the "risk of bridge collapse will never be zero."

Panic set in at the old Van Norman Dam where a torrent of water threatened to break its banks.

"Water was sloshing on top of it," recalls Jim Hazard who hitchhiked home from Olive View Hospital that day. "And I could see the dam, the whole structure was falling apart - water was cresting, like you were on open sea in a storm."

A grassy slope and a few cracked concrete structures are all that remain on the site of the old dam today.

"The dam at that time basically dropped thirty feet, slumped," says Steven Cole of the L.A. Department of Water and Power. "The soil underneath it liquefied or almost turned into like Jell-O or quicksand."

Cole tells Eyewitness News the dam, built in 1915, was only about half full on the day of the earthquake, because it had already been identified as in need of work. The water level was within about five feet of overrunning the dam into the valley below.

Eighty thousand people were evacuated as first responders piled up sandbags and rushed to drain water from the dam.

"Luckily, it only slumped thirty feet and didn't slump thirty-five feet," says Cole. "If it had slumped thirty-five feet, it would have wiped out a lot of people."

The LADWP has mitigated, retrofitted or replaced twelve of its fifteen dams since the 1971 earthquake and they now consult with seismic experts and use modern construction techniques.

The old Van Norman Dam was replaced by the L.A. Reservoir, which holds about half the amount of water.