A magnitude 7.2 earthquake rocked Mexico’s Baja California peninsula Sunday, jolting millions of people from Los Angeles and San Diego to Phoenix and scattering destruction along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Emergency services in both the U.S. and Mexico scrambled to assess the extent of casualties and damage, including fallen buildings, buckled roads, cracked water canals, fires and telephone and electrical outages. It appeared that most of the damage was in the twin border cities of Calexico, Calif., and Mexicali, Mexico, where at least two people were reported killed and several injured.
Witnesses on both sides of the border reported feeling a strong, rolling series of shakes that unleashed panic in a dozen or more towns and cities. Families in the middle of Easter lunches were sent running for cover.
“It’s really ugly here,” Olga Jimenez, 29, a water-company worker in Mexicali, said by telephone as her house continued to shake around her and ambulance and police sirens wailed in the background. “We felt a really big shake. The walls on houses fell down and people were running in the streets screaming.”
A new four-story parking garage at Mexicali’s state government headquarters partly collapsed, along with part of the city’s courthouse, residents said. Patients were evacuated from the main hospital for fear of structural damage.
At least one person was killed in Mexicali by falling debris, Alfredo Escobedo, head of local emergency services, told reporters. A second man was killed when he panicked as the ground shook, ran into the street and was struck by a car.
Miguel Coronado, 48, who was in Mexicali with half a dozen relatives visiting family for Easter, said the quake “shook so strong that some people fell down. Some people got hysterical, and others started praying.”
On Sunday night he joined a flood of people walking over the border from Mexicali into Calexico, after the crossing was closed to northbound vehicular traffic. People streamed across carrying babies, lugging laundry bags and pushing suitcases and elderly relatives in wheelchairs.
“It’s a disaster over there,” said Nayeli Ramirez, 17, after crossing into Calexico. “Buildings are tipped up. Cars are smashed. It’s horrible. Everyone is running.”
In Calexico’s older central district, windows were broken and goods had tumbled off store shelves. Glass and plaster were everywhere. By Sunday evening, some merchants were already sweeping up as inspectors red-tagged buildings to keep people out until damage surveys could be completed.
“Calexico has suffered a devastating hit,” said City Manager Victor Carrillo. “Our downtown is shut down, and people everywhere are afraid.”
The U.S. Geological Survey measured the magnitude of the quake at 7.2 -- equal to the force that devastated the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince in January. It hit about 3:40 p.m. local time, lasted about 35 seconds and was followed 16 minutes later by a magnitude 3.9 shaker near Borrego Springs, Calif., and, separately, a magnitude 4.1 temblor six miles southwest of Malibu in the Pacific Ocean.
It was the third major quake in the Western Hemisphere in the last three months: In addition to the Haiti disaster, in which more than 200,000 people were killed, central and southern Chile were hit by one of the most powerful seismic events in history when an 8.8 quake struck on Feb. 27, killing about 700 people.
The epicenter of Sunday’s main quake was near the Mexican town of Guadalupe Victoria, a wine-producing region about 30 miles south of Mexicali-Calexico and 220 miles southeast of Los Angeles. Bridges collapsed around the town and concrete irrigation canals were badly damaged. At about six miles underground, it was a relatively shallow quake, which enhances the potential for devastation.
In Mexicali, Calexico and even parts of San Diego County, electrical power failed, water was cut and gas leaks were reported. The Mexican federal electrical company said transmission lines from Tijuana, the Rosarito substation and the lines that connect Baja California to Imperial Valley, Calif., were all affected.
Electricity and water delivery are now functioning in Calexico and elsewhere in Imperial County. But Mexicali is still without electricity or water delivery.
In Los Angeles, seismologist Lucy Jones of the USGS said the fault involved in Sunday’s quake was probably the Laguna Salada, which is about 43 miles long and straddles the California-Mexico border. A magnitude 8.2 quake occurred on the same fault in 1890, Jones said, centered in a location north of Sunday’s temblor. Geologists will need to physically observe the fault before making a definitive determination of the quake’s origin, she added.
The quake moved from the southeast toward the northwest, explaining why Southern California felt it so strongly.
Occurring at the junction between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates that grind against each other in California and Baja California, the quake occurred on a strike-slip fault, which splices vertically through the Earth’s crust causing the surface land to move horizontally.
The area has been seismically active for the last year, and there were several foreshocks that occurred beginning last Wednesday, with magnitudes of 3 and 4, Jones said.
“This area is a very active area. There have been swarms at many times,” Jones said.
No significant damage or injuries were reported in Los Angeles. The L.A. Fire Department said it saw a slight increase in 911 calls mostly associated with automatic alarms and stuck elevators. LAFD and San Diego authorities reported that their checks of highways, overpasses and other infrastructure revealed no damage.
Still, the shaking in Los Angeles lasted a disconcertingly long time.
“When it first started, it felt like I was on a roller coaster,” said Jennifer Hayne, 59, of Hemet. “It slowed down, then it picked up even faster for about a minute.”
In Orange County, rides at both Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm were shut down briefly for inspection.
Two major power outages were reported in the San Clemente region and Borrego Springs, leaving thousands of customers in the dark for several hours, said Jennifer Ramp, a spokeswoman for San Diego Gas & Electric Co.
In El Centro, Calif., extensive damage was reported, including multiple gas leaks, water main breaks and collapsed chimneys and balconies, said Fire Capt. Chad Whitlock. Several mobile homes were knocked off their foundations and were without water and power.
In Imperial County, Imperial Irrigation District officials report no major damage to the complex All-American Canal system that provides water to residential users and farmers in one of the major food-producing areas of the U.S. Minor damage was reported to some laterals and gates but IID crews worked through the night on repairs so that delivery was not interrupted.
By far, it seemed the Mexican side of the border was hardest hit, suffering what Jones said was the strongest quake to hit the region in 18 years.
At the Playa Club Hotel in San Felipe, a popular vacation destination for American travelers, workers and guests were alarmed but quickly recovered. No damage was reported in the town, but Internet and cellular telephone communications were interrupted.
Tijuana, on the western side of the peninsula across from the epicenter, appeared to have escaped damage, but the road between it and Mexicali was damaged, the Mexican Interior Ministry said.
In Ensenada, some buildings were evacuated as a precaution, the fire department said.
At Mexicali’s main hospital, windows were shattered, floors and walls cracked. Patients were evacuated from the seven-story building onto the hospital grounds, where they were gathered under a large plastic awning.
At a makeshift maternity ward on the hospital grounds, obstetrician Dr. Cesar Martinez said nine babies had been born since the quake struck, two more women were in the final stages of delivery and more women in labor were arriving.
“The shaking made the babies drop and the mothers to go into labor,” Martinez said. “We never have this many on a Sunday afternoon.”
No quake-related injuries had appeared, but the trauma was settling in.
“It shook so hard,” 16-year-old Kassandra Ornelas said, “we thought the Earth was going to open up.”
Times staff writers Alan Zarembo, Rong-Gong Lin II, Carla Rivera, Ruben Vives and Richard Winton in Los Angeles contributed to this report.