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Los Angeles | L.A. THEN AND NOW

Mighty '52 Quake Took Toll in Tehachapi

June 02, 2002|CECILIA RASMUSSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Clocks stopped at 4:52 a.m. on Monday, July 21, 1952, in the small railroad town of Tehachapi, nestled in the mountain range separating two Californias. The earth shivered an hour before dawn, when the summer sun would rise over Walker Pass like a burning ball to sear the Mojave.

The epicenter of the rolling temblor measured 7.7 on the Richter scale and centered on White Wolf Fault southwest of Bakersfield. It was the most powerful earthquake to hit Southern California in the 20th century and the largest in the nation since San Francisco's in 1906.

Pat Gracey, then 23, was living with her mother in a 70-year-old-home when six subsequent jolts, some as big as magnitude 5, followed within moments and hours.

"The aftershocks felt and sounded like galloping horses right there in the house," Gracey, now 73, said in a recent interview. She still lives in town, and her niece lives in that very house.

Screams and children's cries came from a toppled two-story unreinforced brick building across the street from Gracey's home. One adult and eight children died there, tearing at the heart of the town. The earth shook so convulsively that a nearby yellow school bus bounced in the air like a rubber ball.

Along with the Red Cross and other rescue workers, more than a dozen long-robed members of the WKFL Fountain of the World--the Wisdom, Knowledge, Faith and Love cult in Ventura County--braved the aftershocks to bandage the injured and feed the homeless.

Awakened by the temblor and plaster falling from his bedroom ceiling, Police Chief Hugh Ernst dressed and went into the streets to assess the damage. In a town with fewer than 2,000 residents, the toll was frightening: 12 people dead and 35 injured, some critically.

Ernst's fear--along with that of most townsfolk--was what might have happened at the California Institution for Women, south of town. At the time, it was the state's only prison for female felons, with more than 417 inmates.

Seventy guards ushered the sleepy convicts out of the wreckage without incident. The women spent a day on the lawns in front of the warden's Tudor-style mansion as members of the military pitched tents to shelter them for several weeks. Eventually, they were moved to a newly constructed prison at Frontera, near Chino. Gov. Earl Warren issued each woman a "good conduct" reward, entitling her to subtract one month from her sentence.

The railroad, the town's reason for existence and once one of its largest employers, didn't get off as easily.

Two tunnels with 18-inch-thick walls collapsed east of town, blocking all train travel for days. Railroad inspectors said that an eight-mile section of the tracks was "twisted like a licorice stick" and a 30-foot chasm yawned in the right-of-way.

The Southern Pacific Railroad's water tank bounced off its 15-foot perch, crushing and flooding the home of railroad worker Woodrow Newton and his family, who barely escaped.

Police Officer Kirby Bezzo was putting up a pedestrian crosswalk sign near Gracey's house when he saw his patrol car slide more than 70 feet across the intersection.

Then he heard the blood-curdling screams of Louis G. Martin: "Help me, help me!" Martin's red-brick, two-story furniture store had collapsed atop his one-story attached apartment, where his family slept. Another one-story house, where 16 people lived, also was crushed. For four hours, neighbors, friends and rescue workers dug through the three collapsed structures with shovels, hammers, pocketknives and bare hands. All the while, they listened to the anguished cries of the buried children. Three of Martin's children, along with one of his children's friends, were found dead in the rubble.

Martin's neighbor, Pete Quintana, 40, and his oldest daughter, Ruth, 17, managed to crawl out. They huddled together near the wreckage, looking for a sign that the rest of the family would somehow emerge from the mountain of brick and timber. Quintana's wife, Blanche, 36, and their nine children had just arrived the day before from New Mexico, ready to begin a new life in Tehachapi.

One of the children pinned in the rubble worried more about the rescuers than herself. "Watch out, men, don't get hurt. Because I'm hurt, don't get hurt yourself," she cautioned.

Four of Quintana's children and two other relatives finally were freed. But before rescuers could reach his wife, who was crushed to death under a wooden beam, the last faint cries of one of the children faded into nothing. Soon, the four remaining children, some still breathing, were found together in the same bed. Those who were still alive then died soon after from injuries and dust-filled lungs.

Quintana's brother-in-law escaped injury by leaving the house moments earlier to get a cup of coffee at a nearby cafe. But another brother-in-law wasn't so lucky. He was injured when a flying brick hit him in the head as he slept under a nearby tree.

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