When the ’Quake Hit Long Beach
Lieut.Maurice M.Clement, Long Beach Fire Department,tells what happened
EARLY in the afternoon of March 10, Long Beach, Cal., was typical of the average California city. At about five minutes to six, “hell broke loose.” That is a concise statement of what happened.
You can get a better picture by absorbing a few pertinent facts. The population of Long Beach is about 150,000. The personnel of the Fire Department numbers 223. There are twelve fire stations. Apparatus includes 12 pumping engines; one 85-foot aerial ladder, one city service ladder truck (obsolete and out of commission) two combination chemical and first aid trucks, one chemical truck, and one foam truck.
Headquarters Station, No. 1, was a two-story brick structure, built in 1906. Along the east side is a onestory row of offices that is headquarters. At the northwest corner is a one-story structure housing the alarm system, vintage of 1906. It is a four-circuit Gamewell system.
With that first rending, twisting shock of the earthquake, the heavy cornice capstones on No. 1 Station came crashing down through the roof of the fire alarm bureau onto the storage batteries.
Telephone Service Disrupted
The alarm operator immediately called all stations over the P.B.X. board and found but two of the twelve with phone service. Meanwhile at Station No. 1, the entire second floor front wall came tumbling outward accompanied by the cornice, the fire wall and a twelvefoot balcony. Men frenzied with fear were sliding the pole and rushing outside only to be felled by the falling masonry. One man stepped out a window to the balcony and was hurled to the ground, when the balcony gave way under the terrific load of tumbling brick and stone. Frantic rescuers pulled those struck free of the debris before the dust cloud had fairly raised, and the six injured were rushed to hospitals.
At Station Five the same thing happened on a smaller scale. Fortunately only one man was injured here. Upstairs in the squad room, a fireman was sitting with his chair tilted against the rear wall. The first shock threw him into the center of the room, and the second shock took the whole rear wall out, and with it, the chair in which he had been sitting a moment before.
Picture conditions! The alarm system is out. Only two stations can be reached by telephone. Fires are breaking out in a dozen places over the city. Most fire stations have a pile of debris before the front doors, and the apparatus is inside.
Men Follow Own Initiative
The department is mighty proud of the manner in which the men on duty carried on during those first thirty minutes. Every piece of apparatus was driven out of the crumbling stations without casualty or breakdown, although in several instances the wreckage over which they had to drive was piled almost three feet high.
Then the men went to work. Rules and regulations were forgotten; procedure was thrown into the discard; precedent meant nothing, for there was no such thing. In a twinkling each company commander became chief, with decisions resting on his shoulders. St. Mary’s Hospital, an old frame structure, was evacuated of its patients by Engine 3. The company then raced to Poly High School where fire had broken out in the chemistry laboratory. Engine 7 dashed to the oil fields where three derricks had fallen blazing across Atlantic Avenue. Two other school houses, the Continental Baking Company plant, and several other structures were afire, and every one was handled by the nearest fire company called either by messenger or directed by a glowing sky.
By this time, the entire off-shift had reported, and were manning reserve and auxiliary equipment as well as augmenting the crews still fighting the three major fires.
Sailors and Marines on Duty
Within two hours a great change had taken place in the city. Sailors and Marines from the U. S. fleet at anchor in the roadstead were on duty at every intersection in the city. Military men were fully armed, and with orders to shoot to kill at the first sign of looting. The Los Angeles Fire Department sent three pumping engines, one hose wagon, three ladder trucks, a searchlight truck, a wrecking truck, a bulldozer, all fully manned and in command of an Assistant Chief and a Battalion Chief. Huntington Beach sent one of its two pumping engines to protect the Naples district which is reached by a bridge, the approach to which had sunk so low as to make the district inaccessible to Long Beach apparatus. Newport Beach sent a pumper over the inland road into the city. Five members of the San Bernardino Fire Department, two of them Captains, reported for duty. Retired fire officials, anxious to help, came to headquarters. Radio Pictures, Inc., of Hollywood, sent two massive portable generators and sixteen sun arcs to assist in the night rescue work.
From every hand came assistance and offers of assistance. Post 27, American Legion, turned its new clubhouse into a morgue, and one of the first victims to be taken there was Lieutenant Ah Stephens, commander of Ladder Truck 1, who died shortly after reaching the hospital following the crash at Station 1. The National Guard armory was pressed into service as a first aid station. From all Southern California came motorcycle officers, ambulances, doctors and nurses, and there was ample work for everyone.
The night was made hideous with the constant eerie shrieking of sirens, as emergency vehicles rushed through the fog-laden night.
Fire apparatus was kept constantly on the move answering lire calls and pulling bodies out of wreckage.
Of the next few days, nothing need be said, for the story of major disasters is ever the same. Following the initial shock, whether it be an earthquake, a flood, a tornado or a conflagration, there is a period of readjustment that gradually carries itself back to normalcy.
Chief Scott Rushed Aid
Those who came to our assistance, we shall never forget, notably the Los Angeles Fire Department, under Chief Ralph Scott, whose resources were so great and so adequate. Day and night their crews worked alongside our own pulling down toppling chimneys and dangerously hanging walls, dragging steeples from their insecure foundations. After they had withdrawn their apparatus, they sent us thirty men a day for three days to engage in inspection work with the Fire Prevention Bureau. The fact that the municipal gas system had been shut off two minutes after the first shock sent people scurrying for heating and cooking stoves of any and all descriptions. Many of these were highly dangerous, and the inspection of homes averted many fires.
Much could be written about the other departments of the city, but this is the story of the Fire Department.
The lessons learned by the tragedy were many. Let me enumerate some of them briefly. Fire walls, extending as they do from one to six feet above roofs, caused a great part of the damage. They may have some virtue in preventing the communication of fire from one building to another, but I seriously question the wisdom of their use. It is impossible to tie them in properly, consequently, they are the first portion of a building to fall.
Marquees—Those beautifully elaborate sidewalk coverings to be found before the lobbies of theatres, hotels and other public structures are death traps and should not be permitted.
Brick—The use of brick in the construction on schools, fire stations or any other public or semi-public buildings is nothing short of criminal. Had the earthquake arrived three hours sooner, thirty-thousand school children would have come rushing from class rooms, hundreds of them to their deaths. Remember that most of our school buildings were brick structures, and today. most of them will have to be demolished. Likewise, four brick fire stations have been leveled, while two stood the strain with little visible damage. The others are frame, or frame and stucco.
Cornices—The use of heavy masonry cornices in a country known to be subject to earth movements I also class as semi-criminal. Many of the deaths—and there have been 52 in Long Beach alone at this writing— were directly due to falling masonry cornices.
Building Codes—The inadequate building codes that permit mortar formulas considered by experts as not being of sufficient strength to actually hold brick walls together can be blamed for much of the destruction. An investigation by the Los Angeles Examiner revealed that mortar used in ten out of thirteen school buildings investigated was mostly sand.
Architectural Jimcracks—There has been too much external beauty at the expense of internal safety. Domes, towers, parapets, facings, cornices, marquees, heavy signs, etc., may lie architecturally beautiful, but they have been found to have dealt death with a lavish hand not only in Long Beach, but in Santa Barbara and San Francisco.
There is a great hulabaloo about sterner ordinances, more rigid inspection, and less flexible building codes, but where are the lessons learned in San Francisco in 1906? Were all the expert inspection tours to Santa Barbara in 1925 mere junkets? The horse has been stolen, so now they lock the barn. And the lesson cost more than 100 lives. Rather expensive!
Long Beach was not the only community that suffered from the earth movement. There is Compton, Lynwood, South Gate. Hynes, Clearwater, Artesia, San Pedro, part of Los Angeles, and, in lesser degree, Seal Beach, Santa Ana and other communities.
As this is written, minor shocks are being felt. The experts say these will continue for several months as the slip in the formation adjusts itself to its new position.
Rehabilitation goes forward. Frightened residents are moving back into their homes. Food lines are disappearing. Condemned buildings are being razed. Building permit totals grow daily. The streets are cleared of debris. Stores and other business establishments are opening for business as fast as repairs can be effected. Four Long Beach fire companies are housed in tents where they will remain until new stations are built. Harrowing scenes and incidents are locked in memories, to be hauled out in squad room reminiscences.
We have done our duty, and we carry on.