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Friday, Jul 20 2012 10:00 PM

EARTHQUAKES OF 1952: Locals share their memories

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    By Courtesy Kern County Museum

    Earthquake damage at 19th Street and Chester Avenue.

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    By Courtesy of the Kern County Museum

    Damage at Rogers Jewelry at 19th Street and Chester Avenue after the Aug. 22, 1952, earthquake.

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    By Courtesy Kern County Museum

    Earthquake damage to Hotel Juanita in Tehachapi after the July 21, 1952, earthquake.

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    By Courtesy Kern County Museum

    Tehachapi earthquake fault cracks 1952.

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    By Courtesy Kern County Museum

    Lerner's Department Store, 1423-1427 19th St., Bakersfield.

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    By Courtesy Kelcy's Cafe

    An unidentified man stands in a crack in the earth caused by the 1952 earthquake.

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    By Courtesy Kelcy's Cafe

    Railroad tunnels and tracks were heavily damaged by the July 21, 1952, earthquake. The tracks were heaved out of line in some areas and buried in other areas.

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    By Courtesy Kelcy's Cafe

    Tehachapi's commercial district after the 1952 earthquake.

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    By Courtesy Kelcy's Cafe

    Tehachapi's commercial district was devastated by the July 21, 1952, earthquake.

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BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

The threat of atomic war was believed to be a clear and present danger to Americans in 1952.

So when the earth itself heaved and shuddered and cracked open across Kern County that summer, many residents initially believed they were experiencing a man-made Armageddon, the nightmare of nuclear war.

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ABOUT THESE STORIES

This is the first of a two-part series on the 60th anniversary of the earthquakes that struck Kern County in the summer of 1952.

TODAY: Railroad tracks were bent, fuel tanks exploded and buildings rained bricks in the streets: Survivors of the '52 earthquakes remember the fear and wonder they felt when the earth moved under their feet.

SUNDAY: Downtown Bakersfield was forever changed by the temblors that, in a matter of seconds, made rubble out of brick and mortar. Includes an interview with a Caltech seismologist and a map of Kern County's immense maze of earthquake faults.

"There was a horrible sulfur smell that rose up out of the ground," remembers 81-year-old Margaret Wooden, "like the shaking was opening up cracks in the earth."

Just 21 at the time, Wooden worked for Bell Telephone. She and her husband lived in a group of "little government houses" near the railroad tracks on Kentucky Street in east Bakersfield.

At 4:52 a.m. on July 21 -- exactly 60 years ago today -- the couple's early morning routine was shattered by the first of a series of powerful earthquakes that would change their lives and the character of their community for years to come.

The quake that morning was one of the largest ever recorded in the history of California. The temblor's estimated magnitude of 7.5 made it the state's most powerful since the great San Francisco quake of 1906.

"All of a sudden, it sounded like all the trains were colliding," Wooden remembers in vivid detail. "It was such a horrible sound, a roaring. The building shook.

"It was an experience I never want to live through again."

Some neighbors, still naked, ran terrified out into the street, their will to survive overriding any sense of modesty. There was talk of atomic war across the city.

A mysterious red-orange glow and fiery flashes in the sky to the southwest only added fuel to the rumors.

"I remember it was fairly dark and all the neighbors came out," remembers Bakersfield resident Donna Marquez, who was only 9 at the time.

"We were kind of up on a hill and as you looked toward the south there were these huge flashes of light in the sky," she remembers. "And of course -- I'm sure I heard this from my parents and the neighbors -- they were all afraid that Los Angeles had been bombed by the atom bomb."

The Soviet Union, America's cold war enemy, had already succeeded in developing its own atomic bomb -- and everyone knew it.

But it wasn't a nuclear weapon that caused the earth to buckle beneath Kern County that morning. It was a massive displacement of the Earth's crust along the White Wolf Fault, which cuts a gash in the earth in a northeasterly direction between Bakersfield and Tehachapi.

Kern County, its residents would soon learn, had been at the center of a seismic shift felt across some 160,000 square miles, from Mexico in the south to Sonoma County in the north.

For 45 seconds, an eternity for some, people in Bakersfield, Tehachapi, Arvin, Delano and several other communities shared an experience most who survived would never forget.

Tragically for an unlucky few, memory itself died that day.

TEHACHAPI QUAKE

The Kern County Earthquake of July 21 is commonly referred to as the Tehachapi Earthquake, and for good reason. The mountain community of 1,500 back then suffered terrible losses that day.

Twelve people, including five members of a single family, were killed. Dozens more were injured.

While one of the dozen victims died of injuries in Bakersfield and another near Arvin, 10 of the deaths occurred in and around Tehachapi, most of them children.

Many never had a chance as the violent shaking caused unreinforced brick walls to crumble and collapse in upon them as they slept.

Much of the mountain community was left in rubble, as if a great military battle had been waged there.

Close to 70 percent of the community's business district was destroyed or heavily damaged. Train tracks between Tehachapi and Bakersfield were twisted into S-shapes as if they were wire coat hangers, not train rails made of hardened steel.

Stanley A. Beckham, who later in life would serve on the Tehachapi City Council, was a child of 9 when the quake struck, but his memories of that time remain vivid.

"It was absolutely terrifying to see grown men and women who didn't know what was going on," Beckham recalled. "The adults didn't know what had happened."

He and his family were living in Monolith, near Portland Cement Co., in the hills just north of Tehachapi.

"Back in those days, there were a lot of worries about the Russians," recalled Beckham, now 69. "There was a lot of tension in the air."

Later, as his father drove him through Tehachapi in the family car, Beckham recalled seeing families living in tents in the park, apparently frightened by the frequent aftershocks that continued for weeks, some measuring as strong as 6.0.

Tehachapi Valley Hospital, at Green and E streets, was heavily damaged, forcing the removal of patients to other area hospitals or to temporary tents set up outside.

The state prison outside of Tehachapi -- in those days, it was a women's facility -- was evacuated due to safety concerns. The 400 inmates were housed for weeks in tents outside the prison walls.

Sixty years after the disaster, Beckham's thoughts occasionally return to that day. And he wonders how Kern County would fare if it was again at the epicenter of another large quake.

"People don't realize we're living on some pretty serious fault lines," Beckham said. "It could happen again."

'WAVES IN THE EARTH'

Life was getting interesting for Sal Cruz during the summer of '52. He was almost 15, and about to embark on his sophomore year at Delano High School.

On the morning of July 21, Cruz was at home sleeping when he was awakened by a deep, powerful sound, a noise he had never heard before.

"I thought a train had derailed," Cruz recalled 60 years later.

"I looked out my window and the cars parked on the street were jumping up and down. I actually saw waves moving through the earth, like ripples in the soil.

"Then I heard my mother praying," he said. "It just scared hell out of me."

Thirty miles to the south, Marquez also heard the deep rumbling sound. But before that, she said, something else happened: the crickets outside her window went suddenly, eerily silent, as if they felt what was coming before she did.

To this day, a strange feeling can come over her whenever she senses the earth's movement.

"It's not just the quake, it's the aftereffects," she said. "I think it forever changes you."

Not far from Marquez's home in northeast Bakersfield, Kern General Hospital -- now Kern Medical Center -- sustained major damage. Several area schools and downtown's City Hall, which also housed the Bakersfield Police Department, were heavily damaged.

Kenny Loewen, now 85, had become a new father that summer.

"We lived at 231 A St., near Roosevelt School," Loewen recalled. "When the quake hit, a water tower came down in our neighborhood."

"It sounded like a bomb going off," he said. "We thought the world was coming to an end."

When the tower hit the ground, the water inside shot outward with terrific force, Loewen recalled. It slammed into the bay window at the front of his home and shattered it, scattering shards of glass across the room where his 3-week-old infant son, Sy, was sleeping in a bassinet. The carpet was immediately soaked as water flooded the house.

Most new parents wouldn't want to imagine such a scenario, much less experience it.

And yet, one could say the Loewens were lucky, flooded house and all.

"He had broken glass all over him," Loewen said as he recalled his son's appearance. "But he wasn't hurt. He wasn't even crying."

ONE-TWO PUNCH

The July quake and the dozens of aftershocks that followed had area residents on edge for weeks. But as July rolled into August and August moved toward September, one could excuse Bakersfield residents if they finally began to relax. They couldn't have known that the July temblor had offered just a preview of the destruction that would follow.

At 3:41 p.m. on Aug. 22, 32 days after the first quake, Vickie South was at Jastro Park with her two young daughters when the water in the public pool began splashing over the edges.

"The ground looked like an ocean wave was running through it," she recalled. "I thought, 'Are we going to be swallowed into the ground?'"

Just 29 at the time, South had planned on doing some shopping downtown but had settled on an outing to the park instead. She soon realized how lucky she was to have skipped the shopping trip.

Just blocks away, Bakersfield's downtown business district was in chaos.

Edna Ledbetter, a 26-year-old McFarland resident, had been shopping at Lerner's Dress Shop on 19th Street when the masonry building crumbled, crushing her beneath tons of bricks and other debris.

Another victim, 67-year-old Patman Cozby, was inside Kern County Equipment Co. on East 19th Street when the quake struck. He never made it out.

Bricks and disintegrated mortar littered the sidewalks of downtown, forcing police to limit entry to the disaster zone. More than 90 square blocks were barricaded.

Some local businesses, including Brock's Department Store, would conduct sales beneath large tents for months until their buildings were repaired and made safe.

In all, the July quake and magnitude 5.5 aftershock in August destroyed or damaged more than 400 buildings, most of them constructed with unreinforced masonry.

Bakersfield's iconic Beale Memorial Clock Tower, which had stood at the intersection of 17th Street and Chester Avenue since 1904, was determined to be unsafe and was soon demolished. A replica now stands at the Kern County Museum.

According to Californian archives, Rubin Brothers Men's Furnishings had shattered plate glass all over the store. Gundlach Plumbing & Sheet Metal was described as "raining bricks from its walls."

The 40-year-old Kern County courthouse, an impressive structure that some said resembled the White House, was torn down and replaced by the boxlike court building that now stands at Truxtun and Chester avenues.

Nearby St. Francis Catholic Church, one of the most beautiful buildings in Bakersfield, also sustained heavy damage and had to be torn down. It was replaced by the church that now stands on H Street.

Southwest of Bakersfield, the Paloma oil refinery saw four of its 25,000-gallon tanks explode into flames following the first quake. The fire burned for two days, according to Californian archives, at times sending flames 300 feet in the air.

The fire may explain the many accounts of flashes and glowing-red skies recalled by witnesses.

Soon after the disaster, then-California Gov. Earl Warren, a Bakersfield native who would go on to become chief justice of the United States, visited his hometown and Tehachapi. Warren vowed to support emergency assistance to the region. He also recommended that each inmate at the women's prison in Tehachapi receive a month off their sentence for exemplary conduct following the disaster.

Every emergency has its entrepreneurs, and Bakersfield resident Henry Morales may have been one of the youngest.

He was only 9 years of age when the temblor leveled much of the city's downtown, but young Henry didn't pass up the chance to make some extra pocket money when the opportunity presented itself.

"We used to go downtown. Piles of bricks were everywhere," he remembered. "They used to pay us a penny a brick to knock the mortar off so they could use those bricks again."

Despite the widespread destruction, many who were young children that summer remembered the quakes, not as something to be feared but as something to be savored.

Filmore Bender, a 12-year-old farmer's son who would grow up to become a university professor, fondly remembers sleeping outdoors in the back of a cotton trailer for several nights after the quake. The maze of stars scattered across the black sky was his entertainment as he drifted off to sleep each night.

And Bob Brandt, who was just 7 when the first quake struck, remembered the constant temblors as one big adventure for a young boy.

"I loved it," he recalled. "When we had an aftershock, I would lay down on the floor and just feel it roll by." TOP 15 QUAKES IN CALIFORNIA

 

Jan. 9, 1857 -- Fort Tejon -- 7.9

April 18, 1906 -- San Francisco -- 7.8

Feb. 24, 1892 -- Imperial Valley -- 7.8

July 21, 1952 -- Kern County -- 7.5

March 26, 1872 -- Owens Valley -- 7.4

Jan. 31, 1922 -- West of Eureka -- 7.3

June 28, 1992 -- Landers -- 7.3

Oct. 16, 1999 -- Hector Mine -- 7.1

Nov. 4, 1927 -- Lompoc -- 7.1

Feb. 23, 1892 -- Laguna Salada -- 7.0

May 18, 1940 -- Imperial Valley -- 6.9

April 21, 1918 -- San Jacinto -- 6.8

Jan. 17, 1994 -- Northridge -- 6.7

Nov. 24, 1987 -- Superstition Hills -- 6.6

Feb. 9, 1971 -- San Fernando -- 6.6

 

Note: The stated magnitude of earthquakes sometimes varies, depending on the source.

 

Sources: Southern California Earthquake Center; U.S. Geological Survey; Caltech

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