For all the power of the Ridgecrest earthquakes — the strongest with an epicenter in Southern California in nearly two decades — the only death related to the temblors may have actually occurred outside the state.
The death in Nevada is illustrative of the significant earthquake risk the Silver State, though not as bad as California, still endures. The Reno area, for instance, has a seismic risk that approaches that of the San Francisco Bay Area, according to Nevada state geologists.
Troy Ray, 55, was apparently working underneath his car in his hometown of Pahrump, Nev., 95 miles northeast of the epicenter, when the vehicle is believed to have fallen on him.
The sudden movement from an earthquake may have shifted the car, causing the man to die of traumatic asphyxia, Sgt. Adam Tippetts of the Nye County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement. He also suffered blunt force injury.
Ray’s body was found on July 9, five days after the first significant Ridgecrest quake.
It is plausible that Ray’s car fell from the shaking felt in Pahrump from the magnitude 6.4 earthquake on July 4, the foreshock to the magnitude 7.1 quake that came a day later, according to U.S. Geological Survey research geophysicist Morgan Page.
According to the USGS shake map, weak shaking (intensity level 3 on the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale) was probably felt in Pahrump from that quake.
There has never been a documented death from an earthquake in Nevada, according to Craig dePolo, earthquake geologist at the state Bureau of Mines and Geology, who has exhaustively researched records of the 23 earthquakes with epicenters in Nevada of magnitude 6 or greater. “If indeed Mr. Ray’s death was caused by an earthquake, it would be the first time it’s been recorded,” he said.
He did not go as far as to say the death was definitively Nevada’s first on record caused by an earthquake.
“We don’t know absolutely whether the death in Pahrump was caused by the earthquake, but it appears to have been,” dePolo said. “It’s not definitive as I understand it. Nobody saw it actually happen.”
It’s possible that there have been deaths from Nevada quakes that have not been documented, dePolo said. There has been a tradition of towns in rural Nevada to avoid publicizing damage or injuries from disasters such as fires, for fear of scaring away investors. “Earthquake information tends to be a private thing.… It definitely is a Nevada thing,” he said.
Nevada has been largely quiet of destructive earthquakes since the 1960s, except for the magnitude 6 Wells earthquake of 2008, which caused an abandoned two-story building to collapse and two more buildings to partially collapse, and damaged about 30 others. Officials reported $19 million in damage.
But from the 1850s to the 1950s, there were 22 earthquakes of magnitude 6 or greater in Nevada.
“Up until about the 1960s, Nevada was very active,” dePolo said. “It used to be known as an earthquake state, just like California. But we’ve lost a lot of the folklore because there’s been fewer earthquakes. Awareness is moderate to low.”
Nevada is farther away from the main plate boundary dividing the Pacific and North American plates, but the state still gathers seismic strain over the decades that must be released in earthquakes eventually. “The handle is turning, and the box is there — it’s just a matter of time before the jack-in-the-box pops out.”
The Reno area has an earthquake risk approaching that of San Francisco, dePolo said; Las Vegas’ risk is less, but still exists. Faults in the basin Reno sits in is capable of generating earthquakes as big as magnitude 6.8; a larger fault in the Carson Valley just south of Reno could generate a quake as large as magnitude 7.4.
Just east of Las Vegas is Frenchman Mountain, and on the east side of the mountain lies an earthquake fault capable of producing an earthquake of possibly magnitude 6.7, dePolo said.
Ray is survived by three children and four grandchildren, according to KTNV-TV Channel 13 in Las Vegas. The TV station quoted his son as saying that Ray was hardworking and loved to work on his cars.