Sylmar Earthquake
Los Angeles, California
9 February 1971

Memoir by
Donald L. Franson


February 1973

An earthquake for the books

I got up earlier than usual that morning, because I thought it was going to be foggy. After shaving and dressing I looked out and saw no fog in North Hollywood. So even though I took it easy, bringing in the Los Angeles Times, setting the table for instant coffee, I was a good ten minutes ahead of schedule.

By six o'clock I was already sitting at the breakfast table, reading the comics, biting into a hard-boiled egg, and thinking about various unpleasant things one thinks about on a workday morning.

Suddenly I heard a crashing, rattling noise in the cabinet above and opposite me: slam, slam, slam; and a roar all over the house. Old California hand, I knew what it was at once, but it seemed to get more violent, as if it was punishing someone. This was a bad one, I thought, as the lights went out.

The floor and the table and chair seemed to be jumping vertically, and all I could do was hold on, hands spread across the table in the near-darkness. I recalled the old movies about submarines, the crew waiting for more depth charges. I didn't think of getting up, moving, anything. Like a passenger in a careening car after a bad collision, I was just hanging on.

Now I could hear dishes crashing behind me.

At last the jouncing stopped. Shaken, in more ways than one, I rose to my feet.

I rushed into the living room. "A terrible earthquake!" I said, conscious of the adjective. My father was already up and dressing. I opened the front door to assure an exit, but he said he'd rather stay in the house, which seemed intact, miraculously. I ran out in back, turned on the hose to test it, in case of fire. It was just getting dawn. There was nothing unusual visible outside. The silent houses belied the expected disaster. Was the neighborhood unscathed?

I went in and hunted for a flashlight. I couldn't get into my bedroom. The door was blocked — but only by fallen books. Whole rows had been cleared off the shelves and tops of bookcases. The floor was piled deep with magazines and paperbacks. I couldn't help laughing.

"The lights are back on." They had been off only twenty minutes. All local services were okay: gas, electricity, water. Just where was the earthquake, then?

Back in the kitchen, I saw preserved the tableau of the breakfast table — spilled coffee, the open comics page, a half-eaten egg. Surprisingly, there was small damage here. Just one cup, stacked precariously, had jumped out when the cupboard door popped open, late in the quake. All the good dishes were in their places. Elsewhere a few useless pieces of crockery barely covered the bottom of the shopping bag I got to collect the debris. The house seemed totally undamaged. I could hardly believe it.

Television was nothing but old movies, canned children's' programs, test patterns. It seemed as if the stations were operating automatically, without live personnel.

Radio was little better. One station was receiving phone calls from listeners scattered all over Los Angeles; at least this gave an incomplete picture of where the earthquake was not. One man had been killed by falling bricks downtown.

Eventually the television came to life. An announcer out in the studio parking lot relayed bulletins handed to him. A helicopter showed pictures of the San Fernando Valley — an isolated fire, the toppled buildings of the veterans' hospital, the partly collapsed dam. This was the best of poor TV coverage of this important local event. It must have been the combination of the early hour and electrical blackouts at the studios.

Such was my small share of the San Fernando Valley earthquake of February 9, 1971. I was pretty fortunate, with no physical or financial losses. The big dam scare and potential-flood evacuation missed us by a few miles.

Many people suffered, of course, and scores were killed. But it wasn't really a "greater" quake. It was 6.5 on the Richter scale, and lasted only a minute. But this one was almost beneath me, 10 miles from the epicenter at Sylmar; which accounted for the vertical movement, I suppose. Even the aftershocks were thumps rather than shakes.

It was quite an experience (shared, more or less, by several million other people). I intend to stay here for the next one, and I'm not worried — the books and magazines are piled up as high as ever in my bedroom.


© 1973 Donald L. Franson

Santa Clarita Valley History
'Sylmar' Earthquake Instrumental Intensity Map

Southern California Earthquake Data Center
San Fernando Earthquake, 1971


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