Remembering‌ ‌the‌ ‌Sylmar‌ ‌earthquake‌ ‌after‌ ‌50‌ ‌years‌ ‌ ‌

Fred Iversen holds a historic clock recovered from a hospital that collapsed during the 1971 Sylmar earthquake. February 08, 2021. Bobby Block / The Sginal.

Fred Iversen has a memento from the exact moment tragedy struck.

But it’s doubtful the retired law enforcement officer will ever forget the day 50 years ago when time stopped, literally, and tragedy struck the region in the form of a magnitude-6.6 earthquake — known as the San Fernando or Sylmar Earthquake. 

Seconds after 6 a.m. Feb. 9, 1971, Iversen was an officer on patrol for the San Fernando Police Department close to wrapping up the end of a long shift.

As quickly as he was violently tossed to the other side of his patrol car near the intersection of 4th and Maclay streets, he realized something was wrong.

“I was in a police car waiting to finish my shift, which ended at 8 a.m. and it was a Tuesday and, for some reason, I had Wednesday off … and in two hours, (I was) scheduled to have four days off,” Iversen recalled, referring to what ended up being an around-the-clock shift for the first responder.

The quake, which killed 64 people and caused about a half-billion dollars in damage, prompted federal, state and local action to reduce earthquake risks and bolster public safety, according to a statement on the U.S. Geological Survey website ahead of the quake’s 50th anniversary. It was the most violent quake to hit the region since the 1930s, when a magnitude-6.4 quake hit Long Beach.

Then-Gov. Ronald Reagan declared Los Angeles County a disaster area, the state passed the Alquist Priolo Act that limits construction on fault lines and, at the federal level, the tragedy was credited with spurring the government to enact the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act of 1977, which led to the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program, or NEHRP — and creating the U.S. Geological Survey’s Earthquake Hazards Program.

And as someone who was on duty at the time, Iversen still carries indelible memories and images that have lasted decades: The police station filled with dust; the nearby three-story hotel that was now a pile of rubble; and, of course, the most severe toll, when a hysterical mother came up to him begging for help with her child, whom Iversen already could tell was deceased and swaddled in rags the mother held tight. 

It was a 24-year-old Iversen’s first of many earthquakes, and the first of two instances when the Highway 14-Interstate 5 interchange would collapse, which, especially at that time, made travel to and from the Santa Clarita Valley especially tough.

At the 35th anniversary of the earthquake, Iversen received a piece of wreckage from the tragedy that was salvaged by first responder Jon Hartman, who operated heavy equipment for the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

A clock hung on the wall of the San Fernando Valley Veterans Administration Hospital, which collapsed in the earthquake, leading to dozens of deaths. The clock was salvaged, and was something that Iversen knew he wanted to keep so people didn’t forget about the tragedy, or the subsequent lessons learned. 

It now sits in a shadowbox at Iversen’s house in Valencia, protected from the dust, rubble and tragedy that surrounded its salvage. 

The hands remain forever frozen at 6 a.m.

— Signal Staff Writer Tammy Murga contributed to this report.

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