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Hospital Staffers Recall Terror of Sylmar Quake

Anniversary: Veterans at Olive View recount the facility's collapse 25 years ago that killed three and confusion that followed.

February 10, 1996|ERIN TEXEIRA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYLMAR — As a young nurse's aide, Gloria Muetzel had little emergency experience.

But during a night shift at Olive View Hospital, Muetzel got a dramatic lesson: The 1971 Sylmar earthquake rocked the second-floor psychiatric unit where she worked, bringing it crashing to the first floor.

Muetzel is still at Olive View, despite the nightmares that persisted for years.

"It was very, very traumatic," she said on Friday, the 25th anniversary of the Sylmar quake, which scientists now commonly refer to as the San Fernando earthquake. "It was horrible."

The hospital hosted an earthquake preparedness meeting Friday, inviting firefighters to speak to employees and patients on earthquake safety. Photographs and newspaper clippings documenting the Sylmar earthquake lined the walls of the auditorium where they spoke, driving home the dangers: 64 people died in the 6.7-magnitude quake.

At Olive View, three people perished, all of them in so-called earthquake-resistant hospital buildings that were barely 3 months old.

Several employees who worked that night are still employed at the hospital, which has since been rebuilt and renamed Olive View-UCLA Medical Center.

After the quake, Cynthia Smith, then a nurse's aide, worked throughout the day evacuating patients to nearby hospitals. After working 14 hours, she lay down to sleep and began to panic as her body went into shock.

That night, and for weeks afterward, Smith suffered nightmares of falling buildings and shaking rooms.

Jim Hazard, a psychiatric attendant at the time, remembers evacuating dozens of mental patients in pitch blackness after electricity lines were severed.

"There was no moon that night," Hazard said. "It was totally dark. The quake hit with such force that the [psychiatric] building immediately started to go down. It was like being in an elevator."

Photographs show rubble where the first floor of the building had been. That building and two others were demolished within days.

It took more than 15 years for the hospital to be resurrected. Today, Olive View has fewer than 400 beds compared with nearly 900 in 1971. Employees continue to work in more than 100,000 square feet of temporary trailer space on hospital grounds.

In contrast to the 1971 quake, the 1994 Northridge temblor--of the same magnitude--caused only minor water damage at Olive View. The hospital was closed for less than two days.

Technological improvements may have made the 1994 Northridge earthquake less traumatic for the hospital. But for Gloria Muetzel, now a nurse's supervisor, it was the last straw.

When she finished quake repairs to her Sylmar home in April, Muetzel put the house up for sale.

She plans to return to her native Wisconsin to be with her family.

"I'm done with California," she said.

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