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FOX 11 Archives: A Shaky Look Back At The Sylmar Quake

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The longer one lives in Southern California, the more likely it is they'll experience a major earthquake.  The first big one I lived through occurred 43 years ago this week in the San Fernando Valley.  Known as the Sylmar Earthquake, this temblor registered 6.6 on the Richter scale.  It killed 65 people, injured 2,000 and caused more than $500 million in damage.  The quake struck at 6:01 a.m., lasted about a minute and seismologists say had it happened any later in the day, say when there were more commuters on the roads, or children were at school or people were at work, the death toll could have been much higher.

I was a teenager, and usually the alerm had to go off a second time to rouse me, but I didn't need an alarm clock that morning. The shaker turned the bed into a bucking bronco.  My first thought was that a nuclear bomb had been dropped.  I immediately rolled onto the floor and tried to cover my eyes – waiting for the bright flash that years of public school drills had prepared us for.  But there was no flash.  Then I realized that it must've been an earthquake.  Wow.

Our house didn't sustain much damage, and there didn't seem to be any problems on our street, so off I went to school.  When I got there I found classes were cancelled.  The buildings were being inspected for earthquake damage.  What kid isn't grateful for a day off from school?  It wasn't until I got back home and turned on the news that I got an idea of how bad the damage was.

The towering Newhall Pass freeway interchange had partially collapsed.  The upper and lower Van Norman Dam was damaged and water was flooding streets in the north end of the valley.  Several Los Angeles schools took big hits, and eventually they were red-tagged.  Two large hospitals were partially destroyed, including the county-owned Olive View Medical Center, where my uncle was the administrator.  Three people died in that 800+ bed facility.  Looking at images of the collapsed hospital, it's surprising there weren't more fatalities.  You can see videos of some of the destruction by clicking on the images.

I've lived through several earthquakes since the '71 Sylmar shaker, including the Northridge Quake.  But it's the one nearly a half century ago I felt most keenly.  Perhaps that's because it jolted me into a new consciousness of how devastating an earthquake can be, as well as the realization that there'll probably be more of them in my lifetime .

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