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2 Strong Quakes Jolt Wide Area : 7.4 Desert Temblor Is Sharpest in 40 Years : Tremors: The shock near Yucca Valley is followed by a 6.5 jolt at Big Bear Lake. A child is killed and at least 350 people are injured. Rockslides block highways and a power blackout affects 550,000 in the region.

June 29, 1992|ERIC MALNIC and JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

YUCCA VALLEY, Calif. — Two strong earthquakes and dozens of powerful aftershocks shook Southern California awake Sunday, causing one death and at least 350 injuries in the desert and inland mountains but mostly sparing the urban sprawl from damage.

The violent temblors, which jostled skyscrapers as far away as Denver, ruptured the ground for 44 miles and buckled roadways in the high desert north of here. Residents in remote towns were left without water, and rockslides that blocked highways stranded vacationers for a time in the Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead areas.

Power blackouts affected more than 550,000 people around the region, and downed power lines sparked about two dozen fires. Shaken victims crowded hospital emergency rooms, and more than 650 people--some homeless, others just jittery--were expected to spend Sunday night in emergency shelters or camping out in parks in rural San Bernardino County, authorities said.

Officials said 10 homes were destroyed and 1,111 damaged in San Bernardino County. Another 10 businesses were destroyed and 33 damaged. Property loss was estimated at $16.3 million.

The first shaker struck at 4:58 a.m. in a desolate area six miles north of Yucca Valley, a small desert community nestled along California 62 outside Joshua Tree National Monument. Rousing Sunday morning sleepers from northern Mexico to San Luis Obispo, the magnitude 7.4 quake was the strongest in California in 40 years and almost three times the strength of the destructive Bay Area earthquake of 1989.

Three hours later, a magnitude 6.5 temblor centered east of Big Bear Lake unleashed a new round of tremors, causing slides that temporarily trapped 100 motorists and shrouded the San Bernardino Mountains in a massive dust cloud. Seismologists said it was on a different fault but may have been triggered by the earlier quake.

"It was like someone picked me up out of bed and threw me on the floor," said Cindy Ness of Yucca Valley. "Every time I tried to get up it threw me back down again. Everything in the room was crashing down around me."

"I thought paratroopers were landing on my roof," said Jay Connor, who rode out the jolts at his cabin near Lake Arrowhead.

As strong aftershocks continued through the day and into Sunday night, the state Office of Emergency Services highlighted the seriousness of the twin quakes by issuing an unprecedented advisory urging people to stay off freeways and curtail activity. Scientists called the event a "major earthquake sequence" and state authorities asked local governments to remain on alert.

Later in the day, state officials rescinded the warning about freeway travel, but joined with scientists in warning of a 50% chance that another quake reaching magnitude 6 or greater could hit the area this week.

After surveying the stricken region by helicopter, Gov. Pete Wilson declared a state of emergency in the counties of Riverside and San Bernardino. The declaration allows cities and counties to apply for state funds to make repairs.

Asked whether the state budget crisis will hamper the availability of funds, Wilson said: "We'll provide the help first and worry about that later."

Although major damage and injuries were confined to the isolated desert and mountain towns near the epicenters, the temblors were the news du jour across Southern California on Sunday. Some people stayed glued to their televisions for the continuing broadcasts, while others toted radios to the beach to stay abreast of the story.

Everybody had a tale to tell, especially the region's shaken tourists--300 of whom were evacuated from the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim.

"It was like being on top of a mast in a sailboat," said Gerry Zemojtel, 38, of Tacoma, Wash., one of the evacuees. "When I went to grab my baby out of the crib, I reached in and he rolled by and I missed him."

The morning's first quake landed its toughest punch on the string of rustic towns that straddle California 62 east of Palm Springs--Morongo Valley, Yucca Valley and Joshua Tree, all of which suffered damage just two months ago when a magnitude 6.1 quake struck.

In Sunday's shaking, the wall of a bowling alley and the roof of a K mart in Yucca Valley collapsed, mobile homes were tossed off their foundations, water mains were snapped and four dwellings were destroyed or badly damaged by fires. The town's main supermarket and numerous other businesses closed because of damage and toppled goods.

The lone fatality directly linked to the quake occurred in Yucca Valley when a 3 1/2-year-old boy was crushed by falling masonry. The toddler, Joseph Bishop, was asleep near a living room chimney when it fell on him, authorities said.

"We lost a member of our family, a loved one," said the child's father, who declined to give his name or discuss the circumstances surrounding the boy's death.

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