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33 Die, Many Hurt in 6.6 Quake

L.A. Area Freeways Buckle, Buildings Topple

January 18, 1994|Tracey Kaplan and Greg Krikorian | Times Staff Writers

A deadly magnitude 6.6 earthquake--the strongest in modern Los Angeles history--ripped through the pre-dawn darkness Monday, awakening Southern California with a violent convulsion that flattened freeways, sandwiched buildings, ruptured pipelines and left emergency crews searching desperately for bodies trapped under the rubble.

The 10-second temblor, which was not the long-dreaded Big One but erupted so fiercely that it initially seemed every bit as intense, was blamed for at least 33 deaths--nearly half of which occurred when a three-floor apartment complex near the epicenter in Northridge collapsed into two stories.

Triggered by a fault that squeezed the northern San Fernando Valley between two mountain ranges like a vise, the 4:31 a.m. earthquake swamped hospitals with hundreds of injured victims and left thousands more homeless as fires, floods and landslides dotted a landscape that has been visited by destruction with disturbing regularity.

The major developments:

* The death toll continued to grow throughout the day. Fifteen bodies were discovered under the rubble of what had been the Northridge Meadows apartments. Other victims of the quake included a Los Angeles police officer who drove his motorcycle off a sheared-off freeway, a Skid Row resident who may have hurled himself out the sixth-floor window of a Downtown hotel and a Rancho Cucamonga mother who slipped on a toy as she raced to check on her child, striking her head on the crib.

* In a painstaking rescue, firefighters worked more than seven hours to save a critically injured maintenance worker who was trapped under 20 tons of concrete that crumbled at the Northridge Fashion Center's parking structure.

* Highways across Los Angeles County buckled and crumpled, wiping out major commuter thoroughfares and ensuring that life in this car-dependent region will be disrupted for months. Hardest hit was the Santa Monica Freeway, the nation's busiest, which caved in at the overcrossing of La Cienega Boulevard, and the Antelope Valley Freeway, which collapsed at its junction with the Golden State Freeway in the Newhall pass.

* Ruptured gas lines and propane tanks sent fiery balls bursting through asphalt roads, engulfing up to 100 mobile homes at three San Fernando Valley trailer parks. Meanwhile, a broken water main on Balboa Boulevard shattered 100 square feet of pavement, turning the street into a geyser.

* The temblor, felt as far as Oregon and the Mexican border, left tens of thousands of residents without power, gas or phone service. In the historic Ventura County community of Fillmore, where brick facades had undergone extensive earthquake renovation in recent years, virtually every downtown business was damaged.

* Late in the day, Mayor Richard Riordan initiated a citywide curfew, making it illegal for people to remain on the streets between dusk and dawn. President Clinton pledged immediate federal assistance while the National Guard was mobilized to prevent looting in blacked-out neighborhoods. Gov. Pete Wison, touring the area in a helicopter, said: "You begin to wonder how much Angelenos are expected to take."

* Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi, touring areas hit hardest by the earthquake, predicted that local authorities will proclaim many older apartments uninhabitable. He said thousands or tens of thousands of Los Angeles residents may be made homeless.

Had the quake not struck on a holiday, or if it had begun a few hours later, seismologists fear, the damage would have been far more devastating. Even so, Southern California seemed to shudder to a terrifying halt Monday, a day of frantic waiting, dramatic rescues, empty highways and fraying nerves.

"It was a 6.5 on the 'Richter scale,' but a 10 on my fear scale," said Nick Stevens, 40, an Australian tourist staying at the Hollywood Downtowner Motel. "We had been planning to go to Universal Studios, where they have the earthquake ride. Now we won't have to bother."

'It Was Unreal'

Across the smoky expanses near the quake's epicenter, the scene was nearly apocalyptic. Buildings were left in crumpled heaps. Balls of fire tore through mobile home parks. Geysers gushed out of asphalt streets. For the first time in Los Angeles' history, officials said, all the city's lights went out at once.

After touring his northwest Valley district, which suffered some of the most severe damage, Councilman Hal Bernson said: "If you saw Northridge Fashion Center or Balboa Boulevard, you'd think you were in Beirut."

At least six people fell victim to quake-induced heart attacks. The rest were killed by the temblor and the chaos it induced. A 25-year-old Sherman Oaks man was electrocuted, a 92-year-old Northridge woman died when her trailer burned, a 4-year-old child was crushed by the wreckage of her collapsing home and a veteran LAPD traffic officer plummeted from a freeway overpass when his motorcycle skidded out of control on a buckled swath of the Antelope Valley Freeway.

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