PALM SPRINGS — The strongest earthquake in seven years shook a wide span of Southern California early today, causing widespread power outages, buckling highways, triggering rock slides and rocking buildings. There were no deaths or serious injuries reported.
Centered in a barren area of the Coachella Valley 12 miles northwest of here, the temblor, measuring 6.0 on the Richter scale, struck at 2:21 a.m., shaking millions of Californians abruptly awake.
Lasting from 20 to 30 seconds, the soft tremors mounted into sharply felt jolts, setting off a symphony of car alarms in three counties, knocking mobile homes off their foundations and swaying high-rise buildings in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
"It was a disaster," said Roxana Melland, who lives with her husband, Scott, and two young daughters in the Painted Hills area, near the quake's epicenter. "Our bed slammed from one wall to the other and back again. It was like a giant was behind the house shaking the whole thing."
Rocks as big as cars pelted down on highways near Palm Springs, closing them to traffic for a time, and periodic blackouts were reported throughout the Coachella Valley during the morning. For a time, as many as 80,000 customers were without electricity and scores of others were without telephone service.
"The main problem was confusion," Palm Springs police spokesman Fred Donnell said. "The public was scared."
In contrast, the violent February, 1971, quake that struck the San Fernando Valley killed 64 people and injured 1,000 others. That tremor, measuring 6.5 on the Richter scale, did more than $500 million in property damage. Aftershocks, some with magnitudes as far as 5.7, continued for more than a week.
In 1979, a quake measuring 6.5 centered in the Imperial Valley, injuring almost 100 people in California and Mexico.
By 9 a.m. today, 14 aftershocks with magnitudes between 3 and 4 had occurred, according to seismologist Thomas Heaton, chief scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey office at Caltech.
2-Inch Sideways Slippage
The quake occurred along the the San Andreas Fault system, and scientists pinpointed it on either the Banning or Mission Springs Fault. The sharp jolt felt by residents of the area corresponded to a two-inch sideways slippage along the fault, scientists said.
Fire officials in Riverside County blamed the earthquake for two small brush fires in the San Jacinto mountains and a blaze at a Cathedral City glass company. The fire inside the Cathedral Mirror & Glass Co. may have been sparked by a quake-caused electrical short-circuit, Capt. Dan Proctor of the Riverside County Fire Department said.
About 15 to 20 acres of vegetation were burned in the Cabazon Peak area west of Palm Springs, apparently when friction from rock slides sparked the dry brush. A fire started by fallen power lines blackened more brush in the Chino Canyon area.
Falling rock forced closure of California 111 from Interstate 10 leading into Palm Springs.
All but one lane of California 74, east of Cranston, was closed for most of the morning. California 243 was blocked for a time from near Idyllwild to Banning, and California 62 was partly closed from Pierson to the Morongo Grade; both highways were reopened by noon.
Structural damage was reported on the Windy Point Bridge, also known as the White Water Bridge, at State 111, and ramps leading on and off the overpass were closed.
In the Western Village Mobile Home Park four miles north of Palm Springs, eight mobile homes were damaged and one was reported a total loss after being jostled off its foundation.
Southern California Edison officials said the rumbling "zapped" circuit breakers at its major substation between Palm Springs and Desert Hot Springs, cutting off 500,000 volts of power fed into the station from the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant in Arizona.
Less Usage Urged
Edison spokesman Bob Crouch said power was restored to most customers by 7:30 a.m. Still, as a result of the damage to the substation, power company officials were urging customers from Palm Springs to Redlands and San Bernardino to turn off their air conditioners and curtail other non-essential electrical use.
Officials said the breakdown at the facility also contributed to a full loss of power at the Metropolitan Water District's Hinds Pumping Station near Chiriaco Summit and a partial loss at the Eagle Mountain Pumping Plant near Desert Center. The power loss forced MWD workers to dump millions of gallons of water into a dry lake bed in the desert, undermining a railroad trestle and creating minor flooding. In Palm Springs and other desert communities, the shaking was sharp enough to topple store shelves, keep burglar alarms ringing for hours and roust tourists from their hotel rooms.
"There was a loud rumbling noise," said Debbie Sanson, 28, visiting from Houston. "I started screaming at my husband, telling him I was scared to death. . . . We grabbed a couple of those robes they give you and spent the rest of the night by the pool."
Little damage was reported that went beyond broken windows, however, and minor cracks in walls and ceilings.
The lack of extensive damage from the quake, Caltech's Heaton said, probably was the result of a 1948 earthquake that struck the area. That 6.5 quake destroyed many structures that had been constructed before implementation of stricter building codes in 1933.
Roxane Arnold reported from Los Angeles and Eric Malnic from Palm Springs. Times staff writers Louis Sahagun in Riverside and Thomas H. Maugh II in Pasadena also contributed to this story.