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Aerial Reconnaissance : Long Beach Earthquake Left a Legacy

October 18, 1987|ROCKEY SPICER | Special to The Times and Spicer is a Tarzana free-lance writer. and

Sometimes, something good comes out of an earthquake--even the one in 1933, when Southern California was rocked by its severest tremor in modern history.

But only veteran officials and aviation historians remember that from that temblor came a public service that not only still benefits the area's inhabitants, but has been copied by law enforcement officers in many countries.

To better appreciate this public service, it is necessary to go back to 5:45 p.m. Friday, March 10, 1933, when most Southlanders were sitting down to their evening meal--one that many never finished when their repast was interrupted by the area's most disastrous earthquake in loss of life and property damage.

About 15 seconds later, the major tremor ended, leaving 120 dead and property damage of more than 60 million in Depression dollars.

Hardest hit was Long Beach, which acquired the dubious distinction of having the quake named after it, though the jolt, which had its epicenter off Newport Beach, fanned out from the Inglewood-Newport fault line, causing death, injury and destruction in Compton, Santa Ana, Anaheim, Fullerton, Inglewood, the beach communities and parts of Los Angeles.

With 52 dead, hundreds injured and thousands without shelter as the quake, which measured 6.3 on the Richter scale, leveled schools, public buildings and residences, Long Beach was virtually isolated from the rest of the world.

Phones, gas and electricity were knocked out. Roads were made impassable by debris from fallen buildings and snapped-off power poles to all but the most intrepid of motorists who acted as couriers that fateful night to deliver messages to Los Angeles officials.

Gist of their messages was: send more fire fighting personnel and equipment to quench flames threatening to engulf Long Beach.

Legendary Los Angeles County Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz was the principal recipient of the messages, since Long Beach was in his jurisdiction. Biscailuz was willing to send all available equipment, but he needed more information on where and what was needed.

Unable to get through to Long Beach by phone, he contacted his friend, the late C. N. (Jimmy) James, vice president of operations and early-day pilot of Western Air Express (now part of Delta) and asked his help.

Volunteered to Fly

James volunteered to fly an open cockpit plane over Long Beach. He cautioned the sheriff not to expect too accurate an assessment of the damage, since Los Angeles was very foggy and chances were that Long Beach was socked in.

However, James figured it was worth a try.

"I thought we (a deputy sheriff rode the front cockpit as observer) could catch a glimmer on top of the fog . . . that we would be able to tell the difference between ordinary incandescent lights and lights from a flame, which would be dancing," he told me in the late 1940s, when I was Western Airlines' public relations man.

"Although the entire Los Angeles area and the beaches were fogged in, Long Beach was, for the most part, in the clear and open.

"I got down to within 100 feet of the ground and could see them collecting bodies in open places, such as service station yards. There were only two small fires visible. One was a small building on the high school grounds and the other was a small fire of no consequence," James recalled.

Rumors were rampant in Los Angeles that Long Beach had been struck by a 30-foot tidal wave and that Catalina Island had sunk 369 feet. James was able to scotch both rumors.

Because his plane was not equipped with radio, he reported to Biscailuz immediately after landing at Union Air Terminal (now Burbank Airport)--the entire flight taking about 30 minutes.

Biscailuz was so impressed with the results of James' flight that he revamped his aero squadron, which had been established in 1929, with private pilots flying their own planes to help in aerial searches and rescues.

From that beginning of a deputy sheriff assigned full time to the newly formed aero detail, the sheriff's air arm has evolved through the Sky Knight project of 1966--considered to be the beginning of modern airborne law enforcement--to today's sheriff's aero bureau commanded by a captain with three sergeant pilots, 19 deputy pilots, seven deputy observers and administrative and maintenance personnel that operate 18 helicopters and two fixed-wing aircraft.

This all-but-forgotten fact on the birth of the forerunner of modern airborne law enforcement 54 years ago, is a significant example of the public and private sectors working together for the common good.

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