BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Thursday is the 70th anniversary of one of the most dramatic, deadly and community-changing events in Kern County history: the earthquakes of the Summer of 1952.

For 33 days, starting on July 21, 1952, local residents walked on pins and needles as one aftershock after another shook the county.

Read more from KGET’s Robert Price in a 17 News Special Report.

Twenty-two-year-old insurance salesman Ken Vetter – who years later would serve on the Bakersfield City Council and the Bakersfield Police Commission – was asleep in his tiny apartment off Bernard Street when he was jolted to his feet. 

He threw open his front door just in time to be thrown back by a huge, incongruous wave of water and debris. The steel spider-legs of the 100-foot-tall elevated water tank across the street, 300 feet away, had buckled, and the tank crashed to the ground and burst open, sending a quarter of a million gallons of water, peppered with hundreds of steel rivets,  gushing toward him. It threw Vetter back like a rag doll and knocked out the entire east-facing wall of his apartment.

“All the debris, furniture, bed and all, was all piled up at the end of the room,” Vetter said.

Vetter, scrambling to his feet, suddenly noticed screams coming from the apartment above his. 

He ran upstairs and rescued his neighbors, a single mother and her young son. The tidal wave had deflected off his first-story apartment with enough force to crash through their upstairs window, sending shards of glass flying. 

The huge wave channeled into a river and gushed westward down Bernard Street, toward the city center, flowing right through the middle of the sales lot of Galey’s Marine Supply, a local boat dealership. People typically tow their boats to the river; on this bizarre morning, the river came to the boats.

Vetter staggered around in front of his destroyed apartment, drenched and dazed, not certain what to do next. A boy walked up to him and pointed to the Saint Christopher medal that Vetter wore around his neck. “That,” the boy said, “is what saved you.”

Some could not be saved. In Tehachapi, which took the brunt of that first earthquake, 12 people were killed – most in a horrific building collapse.