Column: 88 years later, an observant survivor’s experience in the 1933 Long Beach Earthquake

Today, March 10, is the 88th anniversary of the Long Beach Earthquake and, though I’ve written about the quake going on 50 times, I wasn’t there, so I’ve always had to depend on the memories of others who were there. For a while, they were pretty decent, scary memories of people who were actually adults in 1933, then it was the memories of people who were in their teens—still pretty vivid, pretty horrifying. Then they were from people well advanced in their years, mixed in with people who were too young to have dependable memories.

Now, 88 years after the quake that killed 120 and leveled houses and businesses and buckled the streets and left thousands sleeping under the stars rather than risk any time in their shaking and damaged houses, the memories are largely dim or second- or third-hand.

While rummaging through the archives of other newspapers recently, I came upon a narrative in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin written a week after the quake by L.H. Daingerfield, a meteorologist and weather observer who had worked in Honolulu, but was stationed in Los Angeles on March 10, 1933. He was a pro; a man who observed things for a living. Further, he was in his mid-50s in 1933; a prime age for observing things.

So, I’m taking a break from my annual reporting of the Long Beach Earthquake and handing it over to the now-late Daingerfield, (with extensive editing for space; Daingerfield wasn’t what you’d call a terse writer, but he was an enthusiastic one).

His account begins with the shaking in Los Angeles, while his wife had gone to San Pedro to visit some friends.

Here goes Daingerfield:

“It was understood that my wife was to return directly home but she had decided to remain for the night with her sister instead. Of course, I was unaware of the changed plans.

“When my wife failed to appear and I did not have the slightest idea whether she might be in San Pedro, Long Beach, or somewhere on her way home. I was, of course, frantic. The wires went out between Los Angeles and Long Beach, so that my wife could not reach me nor I reach her by either telephone nor  telegraph. Then, the radios that were still operating began announcing the strength and magnitude of the Long Beach disaster—somewhat exaggerating it, bad as it was.

“First came reports of a few casualties, then 100, then 500, then 1,200, then Signal Hill oil wells on fire, then the business district, then all East Long Beach aflame and beyond all control…martial law…highways blocked by fallen and falling buildings and flooded by breaking water mains; madly dashing motor-driven equipment of all kinds, wild confusion; panic-filled and earth-shocked people rushing—rushing—fleeing from the wrath of the seismic monster.

“I must get through to my wife—I must find her—I must know if she is safe—unharmed by the torturing, faulting earth. Finally I determined to go through—nothing could stop me. I found a young man at the garage where we keep our car. He had lived in Long Beach for 10 years. He knew every road, every possible way to get through the mad jumble and frenzied, flying people, the quickly organized patrolmen, the wreckage and all.

“We reached Belmont Shore at 11:30 p.m.—raced and raced 40, 50, 60 miles an hour whenever we found a little opening between traffic and patrolmen.

“The surface of the earth was heaving. We reached the home. They were gone. Someone said that they though that they had gone up into the hills, away from the heralded tidal waves which never came

“We drove up the hill, back and forth along the maze of streets, looking for license No. 7N-1764 among the multitude of cars. Finally, after dizzy ages, we saw the number on a standing car. I sprang out and raced to the car calling them to see if they were safe and well. An avalanche of emotion! Rejoicing! Almost weeping!

“I insisted they all come with me back to Los Angeles with its lesser seismic shock. We crept through the smashed and panic-filled city, through the dense fog that now enveloped everything. Through wrecked Compton, South Gate and Lynwood, filled with tragedy and suffering and almost impenetrable fog, we crept; over heaved street pavements and around shapeless masses of fallen bricks, once homes and stores and service stations, under which may have lain the dead, we crept.

“Over great cracks and buckled pavements, we crept! Over the swaying, sick world we crept! And always the clinging, encompassing fog was with us, hindering us, lending hazard to the highway, lined with the fleeing, fear-filled people—leaving the seismic monster which had sprung to grasp and crush and destroy.

“It was 3 a.m. The lights played from our sturdy, unhurt home! We smiled grimly! We had won, except for the torture of the hideous night and the memory of those less fortunate ones back there somewhere amid the fallen bricks and stone.”

The earthquake remains Long Beach’s greatest disaster—at least aside from COVID—but it certainly wasn’t the biggest earthquake in the world in 1933, where it ranked No. 4, behind a 7.3 quake in China’s Sichuan Province that killed 9,300 in August; an 8.4 off the coast of Honshu, Japan that killed, 3,022; and another one in the Sichuan Province which measured 5.0 and killed 200.

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.
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