A magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck the Mojave Desert northwest of Twentynine Palms early Saturday, knocking an Amtrak passenger train off its tracks and damaging two highway bridges, but otherwise causing remarkably little harm and no deaths.
Four people on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles were injured, none seriously, when the temblor--the fourth strongest in Southern California this century--rocked the region at 2:46 a.m. More than 250,000 customers throughout Southern California lost power, but in most cases service was restored almost immediately.
Centered beneath a Marine base, the quake swayed high-rise hotels in Las Vegas and jolted millions of people awake throughout the Southland, stirring unwelcome memories of the 1994 Northridge quake.
Although the Hector Mine earthquake, as it was dubbed by the U.S. Geological Survey, was three times stronger than the 6.7 Northridge quake, it caused only a tiny fraction of the damage because it was centered far from heavily populated areas.
“The damage could have been catastrophic, but was minimal,” said Mayor Richard Riordan. “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.”
Saturday’s earthquake, named after a desert mineral mining site, was the fourth of magnitude 7 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 temblor that struck a mostly rural region in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.
The Hector Mine earthquake hit hardest in an area more highly populated by rattlesnakes than people, and most of its energy was spent harmlessly.
But for those nearest the epicenter, it was a terrifying experience.
“Let me put it to you this way,” said Juan Tirado, who lives in a trailer 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.”
After the initial shock wore off, many desert dwellers began to celebrate their survival. At John’s Place, a restaurant that is one of the few commercial establishments along Highway 247 near Joshua Tree, the breakfast crowd came late and hungry after the patrons had cleaned up their homes.
When an aftershock began rattling the restaurant, a man stood up. “This is it, boys!” he bellowed. The other patrons laughed giddily as the shaking continued.
David Harper of Landers, one of the patrons, said his first thought when the quake struck was that his dog was jumping on his bed. “I thought, ‘How’d the dog get in the house?’ But then it kept on shaking. But it was rolling. It wasn’t like the Landers earthquake in 1992; that one was sharp, like a truck ran into your house. This one felt like a ship on the ocean. Nothing broke. It was real mellow for a major earthquake.”
Caltech experts said the epicenter of the rolling temblor was near the Pisgah strike-slip fault about 47 miles southeast of Barstow, beneath the U.S. Marine base at Twentynine Palms.
Within hours of the main quake, three aftershocks of magnitude 5.0 or more and at least 19 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 longer.
Some of the aftershocks Saturday 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.
As the day went on and the pattern of aftershocks was established, scientists and state officials discounted the possibility of any likelihood of a 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 caused one death and few serious injuries.
In Los Angeles, though, it immediately triggered memories of the Northridge quake, which resulted in 57 deaths and left a mark on nearly everyone who lived through it.
“My first thought was, ‘Oh my God. Here we go again,’ ” said Jim Castro, 50, of Simi Valley. “I was waiting for it to get stronger, but it never did.”
The 1994 quake was like “someone grabbing you and shaking . . . you,” he said, but Saturday’s quake “was like a rolling motion.”
Although the Northridge quake caused freeway collapses, this time the state’s highway system held up well, said California Department of Transportation spokesman Jim Drago.
Drago said Caltrans drew a 50-mile circle around the epicenter of the quake for highway engineers to systematically inspect all bridges. All highways were operating Saturday, including Interstate 40, where cracks were reported on two overpass bridges, at Pisgah Road and Lavac Road. The bridges are east of Barstow.
The Amtrak 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 for treatment of breathing difficulty, said San Bernardino County Fire Department Battalion Chief Gary Bush.
“Honest to God, I thought we were going to tip over,” said one passenger, Sharon Komusinski of Fullerton. “It was dark, and everything started shaking back and forth. Thank God the engineer put on the brakes.”
The train was traveling 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,” said San Bernardino County sheriff’s Deputy Mike Cadwell. “If the train was going 90, we’d be out here picking up bodies.”
The passengers were kept aboard the train until three Greyhound buses arrived about 9:30 a.m. to deliver them to Barstow, San Bernardino and Los Angeles. They began arriving at Los Angeles’ downtown Union Station about 1:30 p.m., five hours later than scheduled.
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, railroad officials said.
The earthquake momentarily left 260,000 customers of Southern California Edison and up to 10,000 customers of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power without electricity, utility officials said.
By midday Saturday, only about 2,700 Edison customers and 1,000 DWP customers were without power. Most of the outages were caused by downed or crossed lines.
The quake also was blamed for a leak of about 2,000 gallons of naphtha, a volatile byproduct of petroleum processing, at a tank operated by Ultramar Diamond Shamrock Corp. at the Port of Los Angeles in Wilmington.
The leaking fluid flowed into a catch basin and was never in danger of reaching coastal waters, said Jim Bradshaw, Ultramar’s environmental health and safety manager. Los Angeles firefighters sprayed foam on the fuel to prevent a fire, and Ultramar planned to vacuum up the mess, Bradshaw said.
In Orange County, the Los Alamitos Medical Center lost regular power for five hours, but automatically switched over to emergency generators.
“It was a little hectic for a little bit there. But everybody was calm. The staff people, we all know what to do,” said Kay Koford, director of public relations and marketing for the 173-bed hospital.
She added that the hospital recorded one small earthquake-related injury: A woman who came to the emergency room complaining that she had stubbed her toe while jumping out of bed.
As a precaution, the top floors of the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim were evacuated after the quake, leaving dozens of sleepy tourists lingering outside while fire officials inspected the building.
The quake also shook hotel guests as far away as Las Vegas, although officials there reported little disruption to gamblers. Alan Feldman, a spokesman for Mirage Resorts, said the only damage to the company’s four hotels was caused by fire sprinklers going off in three rooms on the 21st floor of the 22-story Golden Nugget hotel. Hotel guests were moved to other rooms, Feldman said.
Gorman reported from Ludlow and Landsberg from Los Angeles. Also contributing to this story were Times correspondent Diana Marcum in Joshua Tree and Times staff writers Peter Hong, Ken Reich, Robert Lee Hotz and Doug Shuit in Los Angeles; John Corrigan in Joshua Tree National Park; Gina Ferazzi in Twentynine Palms; Thao Hua and Meg James in Orange County; and Roberto J. Manzano in Northridge.