Sylmar Earthquake 40th anniversary: the day is still seared in memory

By John Keller

Posted by John Keller

Forty years ago this morning was one of the most memorable earthquakes I ever experienced -- and this is coming from a California native. It was the Sylmar Earthquake , which hit southern California at 6:01 a.m. pacific time on 9 Feb. 1971. The initial Sylmar quake and its aftershocks killed 65 people and caused more than half a billion dollars damage, demolishing two hospitals, dropping 12 Los Angeles freeway overpasses, and damaging the picturesque old buildings at Los Angeles High School beyond repair.

I was an 11-year-old 6th grader that morning, and I remember waking up feeling like I was in the backseat of a Ford Bronco in the midst of an off-road race. My bed wasn't just shaking; it was jumping up and down, leaving the floor. I felt like the quake just wouldn't stop. It was easily the worst one I'd ever been up to that time. I think it still is.

I lived in El Segundo near LAX at the time, where damage wasn't severe. The worst effects of the quake were north of us in the San Fernando Valley, where near the epicenter in Sylmar, the Olive View Hospital was knocked off its foundation, collapsing the first floor of the building. The Veterans Administration Hospital in San Fernando collapsed in the quake. In both hospitals 49 people died.

Most of the other fatalities happened in freeway overpass collapses, including the one connecting the Interstate 5 freeway and the Foothill Freeway, and the recently completed Newhall Pass interchange connecting Interstate 5 and the Antelope Valley Freeway. Strangely, the rebuilt Newhall Pass interchanged collapsed again 23 years later in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake.

The Sylmar quake also caused Los Angeles High School to be condemned, demolished, and rebuilt. It was one of the prettiest old high schools around then; today it's generic and ugly. Other oldtimers might remember a popular Friday night television show in the early '70s called Room 222, in which the outside shots were of Los Angeles High School.

In L.A. after that earthquake, we used to talk about "February Ninth" like we talk about 9/11 today. One of the best conversation starters for years afterward was "where were you when the earthquake hit?"

There have been other, more notable earthquakes in California before and after the Sylmar quake. The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake probably tops the list. Others include the 1933 Long Beach quake, the 1989 San Francisco quake, and the 1994 Northridge quake.

No others, however, were as personally terrifying for me than the one in 1971. I think that quake, and the date February 9, will always be seared in my memory.

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The Mil & Aero Bloggers

John Keller is editor-in-chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronic and optoelectronic technologies in military, space, and commercial aviation applications. A member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since the magazine's founding in 1989, Mr. Keller took over as chief editor in 1995.

Ernesto Burden is the publisher of PennWell’s Aerospace & Defense Media Group, including Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence and Avionics Europe.  He’s a father of four, a runner, and an avid digital media enthusiast with a deep background in the intersection of media publishing, digital technology, and social media. He can be reached at and on Twitter @aero_ernesto.

Courtney E. Howard, as executive editor, enjoys writing about all things electronics and avionics in PennWell’s burgeoning Aerospace and Defense Group, which encompasses Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence, the Avionics Europe conference, and much more. She’s also a self-proclaimed social-media maven, mil-aero nerd, and avid avionics geek. Connect with Courtney at, @coho on Twitter, and on LinkedIn.

Mil & Aero Magazine

July 2015
Volume 26, Issue 7

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