Study Raises Northridge Quake Death Toll to 72


The most comprehensive study yet to appear on casualties in the Northridge earthquake has concluded that both deaths and injuries were more numerous than the official tallies by the state Office of Emergency Services and coroners in Los Angeles and Ventura counties indicate.

An article on the study, appearing in a lengthy publication on the quake released last week by the state Division of Mines and Geology, found that 72 deaths were attributable to the magnitude 6.7 temblor and that 11,846 people were treated for quake-related injuries in hospitals in Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange counties.

These figures compare to the 57 deaths and 9,000 injuries that had been reported as the official casualty tolls for the Jan. 17, 1994, quake.


The new figures were compiled by Michael E. Durkin, a Woodland Hills public health researcher who has studied and written about casualties from many other quakes around the world. He attributes 30 of the 72 Northridge deaths to heart attacks, accounting for most of the discrepancy with earlier fatality figures.

Durkin painstakingly reviewed hospital and Red Cross records, as well as coroner and Office of Emergency Services reports, in coming to his conclusions, although he conceded in an interview that some deaths caused indirectly by the quake--such as the suicide of a 50-year-old Ventura County man after his uninsured business was destroyed--represent somewhat subjective judgments.

Spokespeople for both the OES and the Los Angeles County coroner said Tuesday that they recognize that their earlier figures were incomplete.

Kati Corsaut, information officer for the OES, said the agency accepts Durkin’s numbers as more complete because “we don’t have any numbers other than those reported to us the first week of the event.”

“We don’t have any reason to think there’s a problem with his numbers,” Corsaut said. “Our numbers are meant to reflect the scope of the disaster. They’re not meant to reflect a final number. We do the best we can fast. Our numbers are not based on the extensive research this man has clearly done.”

Dean Gilmore, captain in charge of the investigations division of the coroner’s office, said that some Northridge quake deaths in Los Angeles County occurred after the office reported its figures to the OES and that some were of “direct, natural causes, a person under a doctor’s treatment, and we would know nothing about it.”


As it is, Durkin’s numbers remain well below the 117 funeral grants the state reported making for quake victims six months after the temblor. But he explained Tuesday that he may follow a more rigorous standard for attributing a death to the earthquake.

“I use sort of a working definition of an earthquake-related injury--as something that would not have happened had there not been an earthquake,” he explained. “And I try mainly to confine myself to the immediate aftermath.

“Some claims may have been referring to deaths that occurred two weeks after the quake,” he said. “And there could have been a case of a heart attack after an aftershock that would not have turned up in either my study or the coroner’s office.”

Of the 11,846 injuries, Durkin reports, 1,044 people were listed as admitted to hospitals and the other 10,802 were treated and released. He said that because of incomplete records at certain hospitals, the latter figure may be a little low. In any event, he noted, people who were injured but did not go to a hospital are not recorded.

“And the figures on hospitalized injuries are probably high,” he cautioned. “The initial reports are higher than I have been able to confirm.”

Of the reported injured, 10,558 were in Los Angeles County, 1,284 in Ventura County and only four in Orange County.


In Los Angeles County, 5,938 of the injured were in the east San Fernando Valley, 3,283 in the west San Fernando Valley, 372 in the South Bay, 175 in Hollywood, 154 in Central Los Angeles, 154 in Southeast Los Angeles, 142 in Santa Monica, 139 in West Los Angeles, 105 in the San Gabriel Valley and 96 in Long Beach.

Of the 72 deaths, Durkin says 22 occurred as a result of structural failure, including 16 in the infamous Northridge Meadows apartment house collapse, seven came from nonstructural failures and 43 came from other causes, including the heart attacks.

Durkin goes into considerable detail about the circumstances of some of the deaths. For instance, on nonstructural deaths, he notes:

“A 28-year-old man died of heart failure after sustaining head injuries from being struck by a microwave oven when his mobile home collapsed. . . . Two were crushed and asphyxiated when buried under hundreds of pounds of books, model trains and other collectibles in their home. One hospital inpatient and two at-home users succumbed when their respirators lost power and stopped. A 25-year-old man was electrocuted when he tried to remove a power line from his car.”

No names appear in Durkin’s report, however. “I am not authorized to use names,” he said. “I can’t even look at the data without an agreement of confidentiality.”

As for the “other” causes of death, he reports, “Falls contributed to five fatalities. A 49-year-old man died when he fell or jumped from the sixth floor window of a downtown Los Angeles hotel. A 74-year-old woman perished from an aneurysm, which ruptured when she fell out of bed during the earthquake. An 88-year-old man fell during the quake and fractured his hip, thus triggering a fatal heart attack.


“Three others died of a combination of head injuries and heart attacks that the coroner’s office determined to be earthquake-related. . . . Two separate fatal accidents happened at intersections where traffic signals had been disabled by power failures. A third person died when her car overturned after hitting an earthquake-caused street break. . . . A 91-year-old woman died of smoke inhalation when her mobile home was knocked off support jacks by the earthquake, which ruptured a gas line and started a fire.”

Casualty rates by area were similar to those in the 1971 Sylmar quake but higher than in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, Durkin notes. He puts the Northridge fatality rate in the most affected area as 5.5 deaths per 100,000 population.

This compares with 5.2 per 100,000 in the Sylmar quake and 1.3 per 100,000 in Loma Prieta, which was centered in a less populated area. Durkin states that 67 were killed in the Sylmar quake (other sources have put that toll at 58) and 63 in Loma Prieta.

The Durkin report recalls that big quakes often generate disputes lasting for years over the number of casualties. Just in the past decade, for example, a San Francisco researcher has contended that the number of deaths in the great 1906 quake, often stated at 700 to 800, may actually have been in the neighborhood of 2,000.

But stating a number and gaining acceptance are often two different things. Although the OES spokesperson indicated considerable acceptance of the Durkin numbers Tuesday, the question is what state summaries of “significant California earthquakes,” periodically updated, may say in the future on the casualties for Northridge. It is these summaries that usually determine what goes down in history.


Earthquake Fatalities

Researcher Michael Durkin gives these breakdowns of 72 Northridge quake deaths.


Nonstructural Elements/Building Contents: 10%

Structural Failure: 30%

Other: 60%


Top 5 Causes

Heart Attacks: 30%

Apartment Building Collapse: 16%

Falls: 5%

House Collapse: 4%

Automobile Accidents: 3%

Source: Calif. Division of Mines and Geology