June 29, 1992

Most Powerful Quake in 40 Years Hits California

Robert Reinhold
New York Times

Fault trace from the 1992 Landers earthquake is revealed in damaged roadway.

The most powerful earthquake to hit California in 40 years rumbled out of the high desert east of Los Angeles early this this morning, a jolt so powerful that it sloshed swimming pools as far north as Idaho and rocked houseboats on Lake Union in Seattle.

The quake, which measured 7.4 on the Richter Scale of ground movement and killed one person, was followed three hours and seven minutes later by another strong quake 19 miles away. The second quake cut off roads to the mountain resort of Big Bear Lake and touched off huge landslides that sent dramatic plumes of dust rising over the San Bernardino Mountains.

The jolts shattered windows, emptied store shelves, set fires, opened huge fissures in mountain roads and knocked down houses and shops here in the Yucca Valley about 125 miles east of Los Angeles. The Hi Desert Hospital in Joshua Tree reported treating 70 people for injuries that included cuts, fractures and suspected heart attacks, admitting 10. There was one fatality, Joseph R. Bishop, a 3 1/2-year-old child who was crushed by a falling chimney as he slept in Yucca Valley.

Power Impresses Californians

Residents all over Southern California said the first jolt, a prolonged rumbling that shook houses violently at 4:58 A.M., was the most powerful and frightening temblor they had ever experienced.

"It was something that I never felt in my life before," said Iona Bong, 61 years old, whose house is near the epicenter in the town of Landers, about 10 miles north of here. "It was a sinking that would not quit. Everything I own is on the floor."

Terrifying aftershocks continued to rock the area all day. The Governor's Office of Emergency Services declared a state earthquake alert after scientists at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena warned that there was a chance of better than 50 percent of aftershocks measuring 6.0 or greater within 24 hours.

The state urged people to stay indoors and curtail normal activities, including travel on freeways. But the Dodger baseball game in Los Angeles and other events took place anyway. At 5 P.M. the authorities rescinded the warning and said it was safe to travel to work on Monday, although they continued to urge residents to remain alert to the possibility of more aftershocks.

The damage and injuries would certainly have been far greater had the quake hit during daylight hours or closer to the densely populated Los Angeles Basin than this dusty windy desert valley north of Palm Springs.

Late in the afternoon, Kerry Sieh, a seismologist from Cal Tech, who was inspecting the area from a helicopter, found that the ground had moved 18 feet in one place on the fault 43 miles north of Landers. Experts say that if such movement occurred in a city, damage would be extensive.

"Beyond Landers all hell breaks loose," Dr. Sieh said. He added that numerous faults come close to the surface in the area and several had broken it.

The United States Geological Survey's Earthquake Information Office in Golden, Colo., classified today's 7.4 quake as a "major" event, the largest in California since July 20, 1952, when a 7.7 magnitude jolt rocked the Tehachapi-Bakersfield area in Central California, killing 12 people, injuring 18 and causing $60 million in property damage. By comparison the first quake today was nearly three times as powerful as the Loma Prieta earthquake measuring 7.1 that hit the San Francisco area in October 1989, killing 63 people.

Hotel Tower Evacuated

The Geological Survey put today's second jolt, which occurred at 8:05 A.M., at a magnitude of 6.5. It was along an entirely different fault, with an epicenter six miles southeast of Big Bear Lake. The extent of damage and injuries in that area could not be determined by this afternoon, because telephone and road links were cut.

The authorities were particularly concerned about this earthquake because it was very close to the San Andreas fault running most of the length of California, which many experts believe could be the source of a very powerful earthquake. Such concern led President Bush to cancel a golf match and return to the White House from Camp David, Md., for a briefing on the quake. Mr. Bush also called Gov. Pete Wilson of California and said he told Mr. Wilson "the Federal Government would do whatever we possibly can do."

The first earthquake today was felt as far east as Colorado and woke up residents all over the Los Angeles area. In one home in Hollywood, beds started to shake vigorously and the residents, heeding warnings, jumped up and stood under doorframes. The house creaked loudly for about 30 seconds and chandeliers swung. In other parts of the region people ran out of their homes and stood in the open to avoid falling objects. One tower of the the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim was evacuated. But there was little damage in Los Angeles itself.

The same cannot be said for the Yucca Valley, a string of dusty towns along a mountainous road just north of the Joshua Tree National Monument in San Bernardino County.

Shops all along Route 62, the main route that bisects the valley, had their windows broken and merchandise tossed around violently. The worst-hit business was the New Yucca Bowl, a 16-lane bowling alley where the entire east wall fell away, leaving a gaping hole through which girders and air-conditioning ducts could be seen hanging over the littered lanes. In another few hours, the alley would have been crowded with Sunday bowlers.

"I would have been buried by now," said Larry Rochester, who worked at the control desk, standing in windy 106-degree heat outside the wrecked bowling alley. Like most residents, he was at home sleeping at the time. "This is my fifth quake over 6.0, but this is the first one I was really scared," he said. "The longevity was unbelievable." He said he grabbed his wife and daughter and rushed outside into the darkness.

The owner of the alley, an Egyptian immigrant who would identify himself only as Nick, put the damage to the 27-year-old, 20,000-square-foot building at about $1.5 million. He said he did not have earthquake insurance.

Shane R. Cashman, a 24-year-old construction worker in Yucca Valley, was among the injured. "I was in bed and this just amazing shaking started," he said. "At first, I thought I'd just ride it out. But it went on forever, so I just had to run. I couldn't help myself. I ran down the concrete stairs at our apartment building, but the stairs were shaking so hard I couldn't keep my balance." He said he fell down the stairs and suffered leg injuries for which he was treated at Hi Desert Hospital.

'I Was Pinned There'

"It dumped me out of bed and dumped a bureau on top of me," said Emma Drages, a 68-year-old woman who lives in Landers, the town closest to the epicenter. "I was pinned there for a while. I walked into my house and I saw the dishes that belonged to my grandmother that I was saving for my children and they were all gone."

The early quake caused heavy damage to Old Woman Springs Road, a major route north of Yucca Valley to Landers. At one point the road broke, rising three feet on one side. In Landers, a 500,000-gallon water tank burst, leaving most of the 10,000 residents without water for at least three days, and four homes burned to the ground.

Mrs. Bong's brown stucco home shuddered violently, and she said she started to fly off her bed. Her husband, Leonard, a retired ceramic tile maker, grabbed her arm. When the shaking stopped, the Bongs's bedroom was filled with smashed belongings. They carted out a huge garbage can of broken glass from the kitchen. Mrs. Bong said she lost two figurines she had had since she was 16 years old.

The highway patrol sealed off Landers to all but residents, and even they could not get through without four-wheel drive vehicles.

At the San Bernardino County Firehouse in Yucca Valley, Doug Anderson, a firefighter, was recalling his wakeup call. "It seemed like it would never end," he said. "The intensity was incredible."

The authorities said about 100 people sought emergency shelter. Considering the power of the quake and the huge population of Southern California, it could have been a lot worse, and someday almost certainly will be.