Robert Lee and his family awoke to the walls of his home rocking and rattling on the morning of Feb. 9, 1971.
A seismic jolt, the worst since 1893 to hit the area, got everyone’s attention and they bolted from their beds — including his two young sons.
“They both came running in there and said,” Lee recalled, “‘Do that again, daddy! Do that again!’”
This was not child’s play, and the young Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy knew it.
He’d rise to a damaged home in what was then known as Sepulveda — now North Hills. Cracks in the ceiling. Cracks in the hallways. Cracks in the partially emptied swimming pool, its water level diminished by the shaking.
Luckily, the family was fine. It would need work, but the house was not in shambles. Elsewhere, the scenario was more grim, more chaotic.
The Sylmar quake’s 6.6-magnitude morning rage flattened freeway overpasses, brought down hospitals, toppled power stations and sparked fires.
When it was all said and done, the 1971 Sylmar-San Fernando earthquake claimed 64 lives. More than 2,500 were injured.
That morning, as a first-responder, Lee checked on his family, and then rolled out to do his job.
With telephones dead in an era long before cell phones, the deputy drove into his base of operations — the West Hollywood station, where it wasn’t long before he would get staggering news from a sergeant.
Lee remembered it like it was yesterday, when he arrived:
A sergeant to Lee: “Don’t you live in that area?”
Sergeant: “They just issued a warning for the dam.”
Right. The dam.
That morning, Frank Borden’s dad, Stan, a battalion chief with the Los Angeles City Fire Department, was surveying the damage to Van Norman Dam, the structure just northwest of the town of San Fernando. It stored about 3.6 billion gallons of drinking water.
“When he got there, he reported back that the dam was near collapsing,” Borden said.
The prospect was horrifying for Lee and the thousands who lived and worked in the path of a potential dam break.
The top 30 feet of the dam’s edifice had crumbled. As the aftershocks crumbled more earth, the water table inched perilously upward, nearing the top of the remaining structure. If it broke, scientists would later conclude, it could have killed between 70,000 and 120,000 people.
Battalion Chief Stan Borden’s message prompted a full-on evacuation of more than 80,000 people in the area below the dam — the likes of which the region had never seen.
The evacuation covered not just Lee’s immediate neighborhood, but 10 square miles along the San Diego Freeway.
Lee was driving back over the hill, heading toward what was a swiftly worsening disaster zone. And his home and family stood in the path of the dam.
Over his police radio the order came: Immediate evacuations. “The Van Norman Dam is suspect.”
“I knew that if it broke, we’d get water,” Lee said. “How much we didn’t know.”
Meanwhile, Frank Borden, himself a captain at the LAFD’s Fire Prevention Bureau, was on his way from his South Bay home to the San Fernando Valley with a mission.
The firefighting units of Borden’s department were assigned a dramatic rescue effort.
His goal: Study those efforts. Learn from them. Get it all down on paper.
His mission took him to the Veterans Hospital facility, where a cluster of buildings had collapsed, killing nearly 50 people, and to Olive View Hospital in Sylmar, where a six-story, newly opened psychiatric ward crumbled, killing three more.
Amid the stunning deaths around the region, many lives were saved by quick-acting rescuers.
Already with a keen eye toward disaster preparedness, Borden took note of the ingenuity of those efforts, despite the low-tech equipment available at the time.
“I saw people alive being rescued,” he said. “You looked at those buildings and you would think nobody was going to survive in there.”
But because roofs at the VA had come down almost flat, rescuers were able to get a hold of building diagrams and schematics to find out what sections of the room victims might be in.
“They made holes in the roof in those sections, and looked down in there…That’s where they would pull people out through the roof,” he said. “That was embedded in my mind.”
It was a formative moment for a young Borden, who would go on to establish the department’s Community Emergency Response Team program (CERT) and raise the profile of the department’s urban search and rescue efforts.
Borden would continue to study disasters, including major earthquakes from Mexico to Northridge, from Whittier to Japan, all the while taking in knowledge on how communities come together to forge rescue efforts.
Sylmar was a wake-up call for people everywhere, said Borden, now director of operations for the LAFD Historical Society.
The 1971 quake was the first strong jolt to to hit the Valley since the 1893 Pico Canyon quake. That shaker had an epicenter several miles west of Sylmar.
“People weren’t really prepared until Sylmar,” Borden said. “Once that happened though, people started saying, ‘hey, this can happen again.’”
Structural engineers sought better ways to reinforce new structures. The Fire Department beefed up community preparedness efforts. And sure enough, in relatively short geological time, the Southern California ground shook again in a major way in 1994, when the Northridge Earthquake struck.
“In 1971, most people were not prepared,” said Lee, who would hone his emergency preparedness skills as a specialty, becoming director of security and emergency management for Great Western Financial Corp. He would ultimately team with Borden on consulting work.
Back then, Lee’s home wasn’t hit as hard as many others. And water was diverted from the humbled dam, preventing significant flooding. Still, Lee’s house would need a lot of work.
“It was a mess,” he said. His wife and children took shelter at his mother-in-law’s that night. After spending hours and hours sifting through rubble, moving debris and “just helping,” Lee slept at the Sheriff’s Station.
It would be weeks before the Lee family could return home.
But normal was a long time in coming. For weeks residents faced lack of water, gas and power as the Salvation Army rolled out trucks of hot food each day.
“I feel fortunate, as bad as it was, I was still able to find a place for my family and do something helpful at the time,” Lee said. “At least I felt like I was doing something.”
Source: Orange County Register