Monday, February 7, 2011

The 1971 San Fernando Earthquake, by Bob Burnside

"County Recurrent" is pleased to present another story from Chief Bob Burnside, Ret., this time with respect to the Sylmar Earthquake that struck early in the morning on Feb. 9, 1971, and resulted in one of the earliest multi-lifeguard agency swift water response that we know of in California. So have a seat and get ready to be entertained!


"An Account of the Northridge 1971 Earthquake

It was February 9, 1971, 6 a.m. a dive-training day for the Zuma Recovery team, and I was up early having my coffee before heading to Zuma to suit up and board the Baywatch. On my balcony overlooking Topanga Canyon, suddenly the entire mountains jumped and rattled, my house swayed back and forth and I was sure the balcony was about to collapse.

It was the start of the 1971 San Fernando Earthquake. My phone rang and on the other end was Chief Bud Stevenson. “Bob” (not in his normally calm gruff voice but one with a tone of stress)... he said, ”I just got a call from the County Fire Dept Chief, Chief Klinger, and he wants everybody we can spare to get out to the Van Norman Dam, located at the far northern reach of the San Fernando Valley as soon as possible. Call everyone and get them moving as soon as possible. It looks like this Dam is going to break and the entire path below it will be devastated. The fire and police department's haven’t any watercraft or knowledge about handling it if it goes!" "Get on this now!"... and then he hung up.

I got on the phone immediately and called Zuma Hdqts., South Bay, Lt. Bud Clark with the L.A.City Lifeguards and Lt. Tom Zahn with the Santa Monica City Lifeguards. I explained the urgency and asked that they load up every dory, rescue boards, and lifeguards they could spare... and meet me at the Emergency Command Post at the west side of the Van Norman Dam “AT THE VERY EARLIEST” with no delay... Stressing this was a Code Three Emergency before hanging up.

As I look back on it I can imagine the shock of the valley resident's seeing lifeguard vehicles with red lights and sirens howling and speeding across the S.F. valley with dories and rescue boards...

On arrival at the Command Trailer, a fire chief ran up asking for me and immediately escorted me to an awaiting group of County officials, Fire Chiefs, Highway Patrol Chiefs, L.A. City Police and god know who else... "All turned and stared at me as I entered the Command Trailer.”

The chairman, a County Disaster Management Dept., was visibly stressed. He explained to me that the Corps of Engineers had informed them that immediately after the next medium size aftershock, the cracking in the wall of the earth filled Dam would fail!... and flood the entire valley, all the way to the Ventura Freeway, drowning thousands. He went on to say that all police units and fire crews were doing everything possible to evacuate the entire 80,000 residents they estimated would be in the path of the flooding... but that they estimated another 40,000 would not get informed nor evacuated.

“Lieutenant Burnside”, he said, ”Do the Lifeguards have any suggestion how to handle this situation should the dam bust?” I was taken back by the question... You know that old saying “anyone can be a policeman or fireman... but to be a lifeguard!!!” Well I was loving it... our safety series counterparts were finally recognizing our training and capability in more than just beach water safety. In the 1970’s there were no rapid water teams, no water rescue units... other than the lifeguards.

"Gentlemen", I said in my best “authoritative voice”...

“We have planned for such an emergency years ago, after the disaster of the San Francisquito Dam in 1928.”... I saw a big expression of relief on a few faces. And then from the top of my head, I spewed out the plan of attack... ”as if I knew what I was talking about!”...

“Gentlemen, the lifeguards will dispatch half of our team and their equipment to the east side of the dam. The remainder will be on the west side. When the Dam fails and bursts open, a massive wall of water will rush into the basin below, similar to a large wave rushing towards the beach. When the main force of that water subsides, we will launch every piece of equipment we have and follow the slower water down thru the areas torn away by the flooding. Our lifeguards will rescue anyone we spot as we maneuver our equipment behind the main water force. Our 4x4 vehicles will drive, the best they can, on the perimeter of the water and assist in rescuing and recovering victims. We then will reload the dories and guards and return again to recover the areas as long as needed.”

What a line!... But it was the best on the spot suggestion I could think of at the time... and it seemed to make sense and made them satisfied that a plan was now in place and that they were not going to be called upon to get wet. Maybe more important was they now had an answer for the bosses and the press as to “their plan... IF...”

When I told the crew what “The Plan” was, their overall response was “Great, this will really be a challenge”. Then they started talking about the ups and downs and how to overcome some of the obstacles that might confront them... and not one lifeguard questioned the approach. We were going into this as a team... and fully felt we would save many people and be a big factor in the overall rescue operation.

Thankfully the dam held, as the Corp of Engineers lowered the water table which was being drained to relieve the pressure on the earth filled dam's wall... and the aftershocks were far less in magnitude than expected.

On our return the next morning after spending a cold night at the Dam, the devastation to the valley was obvious and the death toll rose by the hour. We stopped at the International House of Pancakes on Topanga Blvd and read that... 65 Angelinos had lost their lives in this major disaster. As we went to pay, the manager refused to allow us to pay the bill... Thanking us for our service to the community.

Stories like this are part of our lifeguard lore. Like you, we were once young and loved our chosen vocation, whether as a recurrent of permanent lifeguard. We are all a family that understands what it means to be part of these brief retold moments in our history. When asked to recall some of the historical episodes in our lifeguard lore, we are happy to recall them and pass on to you some of these stories. You will have your own moments to share, as the years go on. Save them and write them down for the next generation to follow you, as they will appreciate them as much as we have in recalling some for you."

Lifeguards for life


(Copyright Bob Burnside 2011. Used here with permission.)


The Additional Remarks and Photographs below are courtesy of Bob Burnside:

"Also known as the Sylmar Earthquake, this earthquake occurred on the San Fernando fault zone, a zone of thrust faulting which broke the surface in the Sylmar-San Fernando Area. The total surface rupture was roughly 19 km (12 miles) long. The maximum slip was up to 2 meters (6 feet).

The photo immediately below shows the area of concern to the Corp of Engineers with respect to the potential failure of the Van Norman Dam.

( Photo (above) Source Info:,r:2,s:0 )

The earthquake caused over $500 million in property damage and 65 deaths. Most of the deaths occurred when the Veteran's Administration Hospital collapsed. Several other hospitals, including the Olive View Community Hospital in Sylmar suffered severe damage. Newly constructed freeway overpasses also collapsed, in damage scenes similar to those which occurred 23 years later in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. Loss of life could have been much greater had the earthquake struck at a busier time of day."


For additional photos, go to the link below:


Editor's note: In a conversation on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2011, with L.A. City Rescue Boat Skipper, Dee Golles (and later a Boat Lt. with L.A. County), now retired, Dee said that L.A. City did respond to this event in 1971 with two dories. Dee rode out to the dam from Will Rogers Lifeguard HQ with Capt. Bud Clark, and another dory was trailered out by then L.A. City Chief Myron Cox and deckhand Nibbs Goldsmith. Dee recalled perhaps 4 dories from L.A. County and remembers seeing Jack Campbell (with LACo). We have also learned this evening that Roger Smith mustered a dory from Zuma at the request of Lt. Burnside. These findings substantiate that this potential swift water event resulted in deployment by both LACo and L.A. City's beach lifeguard services.

Dee's story is also interesting in the way it unfolded for him that morning. He was living in Manhattan Beach at the time and was up before dawn in transit to MDR to the L.A. City boat slip to meet the L.A. City dive team at Ballona Creek that morning at 6 a.m. for a dive team exercise. While at the helm of the L.A. City rescue boat in route to meet the dive team, Dee received a radio call from Bud Clark at WRHQ (at the old Lighthouse) advising him to turn around, secure his craft and drive up to WRHQ. Upon arrival at WRHQ, Dee found Bud with a truck already trailered with a dory and then Dee proceeded to muster to the Van Norman Dam with Bud Clark. Upon arrival at the staging area, Dee recalls perhaps 4 LACo dories already on scene. Shortly thereafter, the second L.A. City dory arrived with Chief Cox along with deckhand Nibbs Goldsmith. Dee recalls meetings were held discussing scenarios should the dam burst. The boat crews stayed there all day and overnite and were released the following morning after spending an uncomfortable night in their trucks trying to get some shuteye. Nothing happened fortunately, but Dee recalls it being a very exciting deployment.


Many Thanks to Bob for sharing this story with all of us and recounting one of the earliest multi-fire/lifeguard swift water deployments in California.

Many Thanks as well to Dee for sharing his recollections of this deployment. And last but certainly not least, many thanks to Nick Steers for his contributions and communications leading to the discoveries of the remarks and recollections of both Dee Golles and Roger Smith.


Until next time.....

"County Recurrent" News

(Photo above, "Winter - Venice Beach" Copyright Will Maguire 2011. All Rights Reserved. Used here with permission.)

Service • Training • Commitment

*** Keeping the County Recurrent "in the loop"..... whether he/she likes it or NOT ! ***

County Recurrent is not affiliated with nor sponsored by LACOLA or LACoFD.

*** PLEASE forward to other Recurrents, past and present, so that we can add them to our mailing list. ***

*** OPT IN *** Just send us an email and we will add you to the list.

***** ***** ***** ***** *****


William Maguire said...

Just in from LACo Chief, Tom Viren, Ret.,

"Hi Will
... I was at the Sylmar Dam incident. Jack Campbell and I took Unit 4 (the Zuma sand unit) and picked up the Boston Whaler from Paradise Cove (It was used to get to the moored Baywatch) and drove to the scene. The strangest thing was driving down the 101 and 405 freeways with no other cars on the road. It was a cold night and we took turns sleeping in the cab. Our Job was to rescue the police that had taken up looter prevention post on each block of the residential area below the dam.

In those days there was no such thing as payed overtime, but we actually got paid for this gig because it was a national disaster. I couldn't believe it when I got a couple hundred extra dollars in my next check. I remember I bought my first stereo with the extra cash.

There were other times when we performed do it yourself swift water rescue, before we actually had any training. One big one I can remember was when the Sepulveda Basin flooded in a big rain storm. City Fire asked for our help, and we sent teams with IRBs to the scene. I didn't go but I remember Shelly Butler and some others made a great rescue. A city Fire Engine got flooded out on the Burbank overpass, and we had a photo of our IRB with a tow line attached to the front of it, in a mock rescue.

This incident was the catalyst that started the two lifeguards assigned to each Fire Rescue unit in the valley before we ever started working with the County in the late 80s early 90s.

Great job on the blog, a great way to reach all the lifeguards.

Tom Viren
See interesting tech information at:

spyder said...

My first thought was remembering that day, so crystal clear in my mind. My second thought was: damn, that was 40 years ago? Forty years ago yesterday is how it seems.

For the new year, my first wife and i had rented a small ranch up on Gladstone Ave in Sylmar. We commuted to UCLA, for grad school each morning. That February my wife was in Boston for a seminar, and i was alone living and learning and working. The house was at the top of a rise, overlooking Sylmar and San Fernando; we usually could see the new hospital and the freeway construction from the large veranda.

I didn't know what to do first laying there waking up to realize that i was experiencing a big quake. For better, or for worse (non lo so), i chose to support my large speakers that were hung over the bed with rope baskets. I watched as windows popped, the door shattered, the whole place shook. As soon as it subsided i ran to turn off the gas (electric had already gone down). Then i looked outside.

Huge billowing clouds of dust were thrown up in the air, but i could see a couple of houses out on the other side of our fence that were off their foundations, completely. Then, as the dust cleared, i could make out the skyline. The hospital was gone; just disappeared from the horizon. Then the sirens. I lived about two miles from the Van Norman dam, but up on the main ridge to the south, so in those first moments i couldn't perceive a threat. I got on my bike and rode down the hill towards the new freeway. The overpass was down, smashed onto the new pavement. Not a great way to start my day at all.

Spent the rest of the day trying to clean up my house, and reestablish some connections with outside world. Fortunately i had a car radio (the dummy in my had given up a portable, battery-powered one for some reason), and could check up on what was happening. It took another week to get electricity back in the house. They never did report on the threat of the dam failure at the time.

A few years later i was sitting in my office on campus at CSU-Hayward (now CSU-East Bay), when the Hayward fault went off directly below me. Then another few years, i was in a training session at Asilomar during the Loma Prieta quake. I have since moved away from earthquake faults.