Extensive Rescue Operations Follow Los Angeles Quake

Extensive Rescue Operations Follow Los Angeles Quake

Rescue operations under way at veterans Administration Hospital in San Fernando Valley—L.A. City F.D. photo.

When a major earthquake struck Northeast San Fernando Valley and portions of the Newhall-Saugus area, Los Angeles City and County Fire Departments’ quick reaction promptly provided vital rescue operations.

Damage from the disastrous temblor at 6 a.m. last February 9 is still being assessed, but could total more than $400 million to public and private facilities, including almost total destruction of three large hospitals and major damage to another. There were 64 deaths and three Los Angeles County fire stations were damaged beyond repair as a result of the quake—or series of quakes—which registered 6.5 on the Richter scale.

Fire Fighters proved that their training made them the leaders in the major rescue operations at the badly damaged Veterans Administration Hospital. The quake destroyed communications, ruptured water distribution facilities, made a shamble of freeways and highways, and disrupted power to a large area of the Northeast Valley, Saugus and Newhall.

Brush fire experience helps

LOS Angeles County Chief Richard Houts said he felt that the department’s reaction to the disaster had been prompt and efficient and that many of the tactics learned in the major brush fires over the years proved valuable in this operation.

The Los Angeles City Fire Department had no active emergency incidents when the quake struck. Only four units, one engine and three rescue ambulances, were out of quarters. In accordance with department policy, all apparatus was moved outside of quarters and placed on radio watch.

The department’s four helicopter crews at Van Nuys, acting on their own initiative, put all four choppers in the air.

Shortly after 6 a.m., there was a fire at a Granada Hills shopping complex at Zelzah Avenue and Chatsworth Street. Water pressure caused problems, and what might have been a single alarm ordinarily, ultimately required three task forces and three additional engine companies. (A task force consists of a truck company and a two-piece engine company.)

Task Force 98 and Battalion 12 had responded shortly after 6 a.m. to a fire in the Sylmar Shopping Center at Foothill and Sayre Streets. While working on this, Battalion 12 heard Engine 91 reporting that there appeared to be smoke in the vicinity of the Olive View Medical Center. The center was the site of a new Five-story multimillion-dollar medical facility and some old barracks-type structures.

Aid requested

The battalion chief took Truck 98 to the hospital and saw that the new structure was badly damaged, with one wing toppled over. Assistance was requested, and two task forces, one engine, one truck, three rescue ambulances, one heavy-utility, a tractor, four helicopters and chief officers responded. Thirty-four injured or seriously ill patients were taken in city helicopters and rescue ambulances to other hospitals.

Away from the center of the quake, the battalion commander in downtown Los Angeles was cruising his district and discovered bricks and rubble on Los Angeles Street at Fourth Street. The old Midnight Mission for down-and-out men had collapsed and a man running from the building had been killed by falling bricks. Engine 203, Snorkel 3, Truck 3 and Heavy Utility 6 were dispatched for search and rescue.

Los Angeles City Deputy Chief Kenneth Long, commander of the bureau of fire suppression and rescue, felt the quake in his downtown area apartment and checked with duty, chiefs on operations in progress. Shortly before 7 a.m., the deputy chief decided to personally reconnoiter the area and ordered a helicopter to pick him up.

Hospital collapse sighted

“I flew over the Olive View ruins and then along the San Gabriel foothills,” Long recalled. “At the San Fernando Veterans Administration Hospital in the foothills,” about 1 ½ miles east of Olive View, I saw that one building was completely collapsed.

“We landed and a doctor told me that they had many injured and missing in the debris and no radio or telephone communications. We took off for better radio transmission and at 7:30 a.m. I asked for Five task forces and three chief officers.”

Minutes later, all available ambulances were dispatched and by 8 a.m., heavy-duty cranes from the Departments of Water and Power and Public Works were on the way to assist L.A. City’s own heavy utility units with lifting rubble of the collapsed three and four-story wards. Finally, eight task forces, one engine company, nine fire ambulances, 10 private ambulances, six chiefs headed by Long, Assistant Chiefs W. W. Johnston and Ben Renfro, and a 40-man work unit were on duty. Some personnel came from Olive View to assist in searching for victims.

Fire fighters cut through collapsed roof of VA Hospital to search for survivors.

L.A. County F.D. photo

Nearly 300 patients—many severely injured—were evacuated. Rescue efforts were concentrated on removing the approximately 80 persons in the two collapsed buildings.

Reservoir threat

One of the helicopter patrols discovered the threat of a break in the Van Norman reservoir above Granada Hills, and Los Angeles City Chief Engineer Raymond Hill soon arrived to confer with Mayor Samuel W. Yorty and other city officials.

Evacuation was soon ordered for a 12-square-mile area with some 80,000 residences. Deputy Chief Harry Martin and Assistant Chief Robert Radke took over this area of the operations. Fire department plans were made to deploy underwater rescue teams and other units if the dam, with 3.6 million gallons of water, broke and flooded the area to the south.

Because of the lack of water caused by broken and dry pipes, 21 tank wagons were manned and deployed at Stations 18, 75 and 90 to respond with engine companies in waterless areas.

Water and power officials calculated that some areas could be resupplied with water quickly if the water could be pumped from wet system grids to dry ones. Seventeen L.A. City pumpers logged a total of 2500 pumping hours on this project. Most were reserve units, but three were new 1250-gpm Seagrave diesel pumpers not yet in service.

L.A. City also supplied 4000 feet of hose to carry water from a Metropolitan Water District pipeline to the City of San Fernando, providing water to some areas of the city.

L.A. City recorded a total of 388 incidents in the first 24 hours of quake operations. According to Battalion Chief Lloyd Bush, public affairs officer, the peak commitment occurred between 7 and 7:30 a.m., when there were 35 suppression incidents with 26 task forces, plus 39 engine companies, one truck and 30 rescue ambulances committed. Incoming calls to alarm centers in the first 16 hours after the quake jumped from a normal 3500 to more than 30,000. Many calls did not require the dispatch of equipment.

Bush reported that in the first 24 hours, there was a 42.8 percent increase in actual fires, a 278.4 percent increase in fires with a loss of more than $1000, a 31.3 percent increase in false alarms, and a 43.8 percent increase in rescue ambulance calls.

When the quake occurred, Los Angeles County Fire Department units throughout the 2100 square miles under its protection reported by radio to various dispatch centers.

It was determined later that the quake was centered on the Soledad Fault, about 10 miles east of Newhall —headquarters for County Battalion 6. Actually, Station 123 in Sand Canyon was only a short distance from the epicenter. The quake apparently traveled south, hitting hardest in the Sylmar, San Fernando and Granada Hills areas.

In Newhall and Saugus, all electric power, gas service and telephone communications were out. Many people drove to fire or sheriff’s stations to get assistance.

Fire at glass plant

The duty chief at Newhall ordered all units out of stations and patrol units into districts to check on problems, particularly in the many mobile home parks. Equipment from all eight stations in the area was soon committed to fires—the worst being at Thatcher Glass in Saugus, where ruptured furnaces spewed molten glass throughout the structure.

Demolished wing of Olive View Medical Center with Los Angeles County Engine 70.

L.A. County F.D. photo

Power saw, in hands of a Los Angeles County fire fighter, cuts through reinforcing rods in concrete of VA hospital building

L.A. County F.D. photo.

Duty chiefs then ordered a task force of 13 engine companies, five battalion chiefs, a bulldozer and a helicopter from the Los Angeles basin to Santa Clara Valley areas. Units were also dispatched from the “back side” Antelope Valley area.

Houts and his staff left Klinger Center, the East Los Angeles headquarters complex, by helicopter and flew to Newhall to assume overall command.

Station demolished

At Olive View, County Engine 46’s crew ran from their station after they were rocked out of bed by the quake. When the shaking stopped, they went back for clothes. They found that station a shambles and that the rig had jumped ahead 4 feet, pushing against doors that wouldn’t open.

The company radioed for assistance and a full assignment was dispatched. After about 15 minutes, with the help of hospital maintenance men, the doors were broken down and the apparatus was freed. There were numerous fires in the old hospital section, but ruptured mains left hydrants dry. The crew left the fires and went to the main new structure, which had collapsed, to assist in rescue operations. Only three people died at Olive View.

Houts flew in from Newhall and ordered additional units to assist in rescue operations.

County Station 46 was destroyed, as were Station 74 in Kagel Canyon and Station 80 in Mint Canyon. Yet Stations 123 and 107, near the epicenter, received only minor damage.

As Los Angeles City fire fighters struggled to free many trapped patients at the demolished VA hospital, the Los Angeles County Fire Department, which had primary responsibility for the federal reservation, was unaware of the tragedy. City equipment and personnel were committed immediately, but through an oversight, no notification was sent to either the County Fire Department or the Sheriff’s Department.

County units sent to VA hospital

A county fire patrol unit reconnoitering the area discovered conditions at the hospital shortly after 9 a.m. County units were released from Newhall and Olive View and under Houts’ personal command joined city crews in the rescue operation.

Initially, the county dispatched 10 engines, 13 fire suppression crews, four patrols, a field dispatching unit and Rescue Squad 59’s paramedicheart care unit. County crews joined with the city in the operations, and helicopters assisted in evacuations. One helicopter was sent to Harbor General Hospital, 35 miles away, to pick up a team of doctors and nurses.

Dick Friend, County Fire Department information officer, noted that the heart care unit, staffed by four firemen-paramedics had been sent to Newhall but was diverted to the VA hospital.

“It was the first unit to arrive which had specialized medical equipment,” Friend stated. “EKGs were taken of patients removed from the shattered buildings and two patients, in cardiac arrest, were defibrillated and their lives saved!”

Medical supplies brought in by the unit were badly needed at the hospital and additional supplies were brought in by helicopter.

Liaison was made with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which supplied heavy equipment through Oberg Construction Companies. This involved dump trucks, loaders, backhoes, cranes, jackhammers and concrete-cutting equipment. The United States Forest Service sent heavy equipment and civil engineering crews.

Field command set up

By noon, a complete field command organization was set up by the county with the remote dispatching center providing communications as operations shifted from city to county command. A connection was made to the nearby county fire line to Newhall and public service phones were connected by the General Telephone Company.

In addition to the city and county fire personnel, highly trained volunteer mountain search and rescue teams from Sierra Madre, Altadena and Montrose joined the effort. High-intensity lighting was provided by the Long Beach Search and Rescue Team with 25 Explorers and supervisors. The Pico Rivera Emergency Communications Association also assisted.

The department set up a field camp, including a kitchen, supplies, toilet facilities, generators—along the same operational lines used on major brush fires. A morgue also was established.

The fire department ceased its activities by 12:35 p.m. Saturday, four days after the quake, when the last victim’s body was recovered.

Copters prove usefulness

Helicopters played a vital role in the operation. Fire suppression crews from County Camp 9 in the San Gabriel Mountains were flown in for rescue efforts. Roads were blocked by debris, and air transport was the only effective means of transportation. Fire helicopters transported nurses, doctors and paramedics each day from Harbor General, reducing a 1 1/2-hour drive to 20 minutes.

At the peak of the emergency, there were 400 county fire personnel committed, including juvenile and adult inmate crews. There were 18 engine companies, 17 crews, three bulldozers, one motor grader, a demolition truck, and field communications and service units. All reserve units were manned by a partial recall.

The County Fire Department responded to 306 emergencies during the first 24 hours of the quake period —a 300 percent increase over normal. The main communications problem was in receiving public calls. The county’s five dispatch centers always remained in voice communications with each other and also available, but unused, was the State Office of Emergency Services network.

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