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EARTHQUAKE: THE LONG ROAD BACK : Rumors Abound as Caltech Denies Predicting New Quake : Science: The school bluntly says temblors can't be forecast after the mayor and governor call about official-sounding reports.

January 23, 1994|KENNETH REICH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

First came the quake, and now come the rumors.

There are even rumors about the rumors, and there is a would-be earthquake predictor at work in the San Jose area who is issuing dire warnings that are rejected by the scientific community.

Altogether, they add up to suggestions that another big earthquake in the Los Angeles area is imminent, suggestions that Caltech and the state Office of Emergency Services say are not founded in scientific fact.

After Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan called Caltech President Thomas E. Eberhart on Friday to say he had heard rumors that there would be a magnitude 7 earthquake this morning, and Gov. Pete Wilson's office called about similar reports, Caltech issued a blunt statement.

"In response to rumors about imminent major quakes, Caltech seismologists are saying that earthquakes cannot be predicted," the school said.

"Aftershocks will continue. However, the rumor of the prediction of a major earthquake is false. Caltech cannot release predictions, since it is impossible to predict earthquakes."

The school's public relations director, Robert O'Rourke, said Saturday that he had been told by Deputy Mayor William McCarley that somebody was faxing statements written on phony Caltech stationery.

But Riordan's press secretary, Annette Castro, said the mayor's office had not gotten such a fax. Castro said she heard that Wilson's office had received the letter.

But a press aide to Wilson said no, the governor's office hadn't received such a fax either.

A Caltech seismologist, Egill Hauksson, said he heard that someone had stolen some Caltech stationery and was using it. O'Rourke could not confirm that.

Nonetheless, the rumor of a big quake is circulating in various forms.

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Lt. Joe Surgent said the county's Emergency Operations Center learned Thursday "from other cops" that they had heard there was "a 50-50 chance of a magnitude 7.5 within 24 hours."

"We immediately put a call out to Caltech, and they said there was nothing to it," Surgent said.

And there wasn't. Friday came and went without a 7.5 quake.

Paul Flores, deputy director of the Office of Emergency Services, said Saturday that the only advisory that has been issued is that "we could have aftershocks any time, and the technical assessment is that there's a 30% chance of a magnitude 5 aftershock in the next seven days. . . .

"A 7 or a 7.5 is without any scientific validity as far as being correct," he said. "It's important to quell this before the rumors get any worse."

An Office of Emergency Services spokeswoman in Sacramento, Katie Corsaut, said that a San Jose man named Jack Coles, who is not a seismologist, has been putting out faxes predicting quakes to the news media.

"That's where I think the rumor got started that there would be a big quake this weekend," Corsaut said.

A Northern California telephone number listed for Coles is answered by a taped recording that says the caller has reached the "early warning earthquake detection line."

"It looks like we may very well have another quake down in the L.A. area just east of the Northridge area," the message declared Saturday. It said the chance of "another large quake" was 54%.

Flores pointed out that the message did not say precisely how big the quake would be, and that there have been some fairly heavy aftershocks occurring daily.

Coles, who says he uses "radio signals, magnetic anomalies and many cases of electrical problems" to predict earthquakes, has had a spotty record. For example, he predicted wrongly that the Big One would hit the Bay Area on Sept. 11, 1991.

Two days before the Northridge quake, Associated Press reported that he sent faxes to the news media, saying there was a 54% chance that a quake larger than magnitude 6 would occur within three days somewhere in California.

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