October 17, 1999

7.0 Quake Shakes Up California, Derails Train

By Tom Gorman, Mitchell Landsberg
Los Angeles Times

The quake knocked Amtrak's Southwest Chief off its tracks.

LUDLOW, Calif. - A magnitude-7.0 earthquake struck the Mojave Desert in Southern California early yesterday, knocking an Amtrak passenger train off its tracks but otherwise causing little harm.

Four people on Amtrak's Southwest Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles were injured, none seriously, when the quake - one of the strongest in Southern California's recorded history - rocked the region at 2:46 a.m.

Centered beneath a Marine Corps base northwest of Twentynine Palms, the quake swayed high-rise hotels in Las Vegas, shook buildings as far away as Phoenix and Tijuana, Mexico, and jolted millions of people awake throughout the Los Angeles area, stirring unwelcome memories of the 1994 Northridge quake. Up to 90,000 utility customers lost power and mobile homes were knocked off pilings.

But while the Hector Mine earthquake, dubbed after the mineral site where it was centered, was three times stronger than the 6.7 Northridge quake, it caused a fraction of the damage because it was centered far from heavily populated areas.

"The damage could have been catastrophic, but was minimal," Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan said. "It's a good opportunity, however, for everybody to take note that we live in earthquake country. We can never be too prepared for the next one."

The earthquake was the fourth magnitude 7.0 or greater recorded across the globe in the past two months. Earthquakes in western Turkey and Taiwan occurred in heavily populated areas and left nearly 20,000 people dead. Twenty people died in the third, a 7.5 quake that struck a mostly rural region in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

The earthquake yesterday hit hardest in an area more highly populated by rattlesnakes than people, but it was a terrifying experience for those nearest the epicenter.

"Let me put it to you this way," said Juan Tirado, who lives in a mobile home in Ludlow, a hamlet of about 40 people along Interstate 40 between Barstow and Needles. "The first thing I tried to do was jump up and get to my daughter - but I couldn't.

"I got as far as her bedroom door, but then I couldn't move another step, we were shaking so hard. I was holding on to the walls but couldn't move. It was like I was in a bottle and someone was shaking it back and forth."

Although power was lost at the Joshua Tree Inn, about 30 miles from the epicenter, the lodging established sustained no significant damage, night manager Jacob Naylor said.

"Twelve guests, all definitely awake. A couple in from Holland, definitely shocked. A couple in from the U.K. asked me, `Is this normal?' " Naylor said. "They're all taking it rather well, kind of excited. Vacationers, new experiences, what can I say?"

California Institute of Technology experts said the epicenter of the rolling quake was located near the Pisgah strike, a slip fault about 47 miles east of Barstow.

Within hours of the main quake, three aftershocks of magnitude 5.0 or more and at least 17 of magnitude 4.0 or more had swayed the desert.

In all, there may be up to seven aftershocks of magnitude 5.0 or more in the coming week, Caltech experts said, and thousands of smaller aftershocks will continue for a decade or more.

There is only a 5 percent chance that a quake bigger than the original will strike in the next week, said Lucy Jones, chief seismologist at the U.S. Geological Survey's office in Pasadena.

Some of the aftershocks yesterday appeared so close to the immense San Andreas Fault, considered the powerful master seismic switch for much of the state, that seismologists could not be sure if it was affected by the aftermath of the Hector Mine quake.

However, as the day went on and the pattern of aftershocks was established, scientists and state officials discounted the possibility of any large quake on the San Andreas.

"The San Andreas Fault is capable of producing large earthquakes, as large as or larger than the one that took place this morning," said Dallas Jones, director of the state Office of Emergency Services. "Seismologists are unable to predict earthquakes and the chance that these earthquakes will be followed by a larger San Andreas event is small.

"Nevertheless, the aftershocks near the San Andreas Fault are a source of continued monitoring by scientists," Jones said.

The quake was centered not far from the epicenter of the 1992 Landers quake, which had a magnitude of 7.3 and resulted in one death and few serious injuries.

All highways were operating yesterday, including Interstate 40, where cracks were reported on two overpass bridges.

The Amtrak train derailment occurred about eight miles west of Ludlow. While the locomotives stayed on the tracks, 21 of the train's 24 cars were derailed. The tracks were left splayed out in a V shape, the wheels sunk into gravel.

Of 155 passengers and crew members on board, four were taken by ambulance to Barstow Community Hospital - two for back and shoulder injuries and two who complained of breathing difficulty, said San Bernardino County Fire Department battalion chief Gary Bush.

The train was traveling at about 60 mph at the time of the derailment, rail officials said. The speed limit is 90 mph, but the train had slowed because it was approaching a freight train.

"These guys were lucky," San Bernardino County sheriff's deputy Mike Cadwell said. "If the train was going 90, we'd be out here picking up bodies."

All the homes in a nearby mobile home park were shoved off their foundations.

"Everybody was running out. The dogs were howling. The cats were hiding. And the kids were freaking," said Barbara Houseworth, 19, who fled her trailer with her 3-year-old child. "When mobile homes rock, they really rock."

Aside from the Amtrak derailment, which caused the shutdown of a twin set of eastbound and westbound tracks, the earthquake caused relatively little disruption to rail lines in and out of Los Angeles, one of the nation's busiest rail hubs, railroad officials reported.

The quake was blamed for a leak of about 2,000 gallons of naptha, a volatile byproduct of petroleum processing, at a tank operated by Ultramar Diamond Shamrock at the Port of Los Angeles in Wilmington.

The leaking fluid flowed into a catch basin, and never was in danger of reaching coastal waters, according to Jim Bradshaw, Ultramar's environmental-health and safety manager.