Reporting from Mexico City and Mexicali, Mexico — A magnitude 7.2 earthquake rocked Mexico's Baja California peninsula Sunday, jolting millions of people from Los Angeles and San Diego to Phoenix and scattering destruction along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Emergency services in both the U.S. and Mexico scrambled to assess the extent of casualties and damage, including fallen buildings, buckled roads, cracked water canals, fires and telephone and electrical outages. It appeared that most of the damage was in the twin border cities of Calexico, Calif., and Mexicali, Mexico, where at least one person was reported killed and several injured.
Witnesses on both sides of the border reported feeling a strong, rolling series of shakes that unleashed panic in a dozen or more towns and cities. Families in the middle of Easter lunches were sent running for cover.
"It's really ugly here," Olga Jimenez, 29, a water-company worker in Mexicali, said by telephone as her house continued to shake around her and ambulance and police sirens wailed in the background. "We felt a really big shake. The walls on houses fell down and people were running in the streets screaming."
A new four-story parking garage at Mexicali's state government headquarters partly collapsed, along with part of the city's courthouse, residents said. Patients were evacuated from the main hospital for fear of structural damage.
At least one person was killed in Mexicali by falling debris, Alfredo Escobedo, head of local emergency services, told reporters.
Miguel Coronado, 48, who was in Mexicali with half a dozen relatives visiting family for Easter, said the quake "shook so strong that some people fell down. Some people got hysterical, and others started praying."
On Sunday night he joined a flood of people walking over the border from Mexicali into Calexico, after the crossing was closed to northbound vehicular traffic. People streamed across carrying babies, lugging laundry bags and pushing suitcases and elderly relatives in wheelchairs.
"It's a disaster over there," said Nayeli Ramirez, 17, after crossing into Calexico. "Buildings are tipped up. Cars are smashed. It's horrible. Everyone is running."
In Calexico's older central district, windows were broken and goods had tumbled off store shelves. Glass and plaster were everywhere. By Sunday evening, some merchants were already sweeping up as inspectors red-tagged buildings to keep people out until damage surveys could be completed.
"Calexico has suffered a devastating hit," said City Manager Victor Carrillo. "Our downtown is shut down, and people everywhere are afraid."
The U.S. Geological Survey measured the magnitude of the quake at 7.2 -- equal to the force that devastated the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince in January. It hit about 3:40 p.m. local time, lasted about 35 seconds and was followed 16 minutes later by a magnitude 3.9 shaker near Borrego Springs, Calif., and, separately, a magnitude 4.1 temblor six miles southwest of Malibu in the Pacific Ocean.
It was the third major quake in the Western Hemisphere in the last three months: In addition to the Haiti disaster, in which more than 200,000 people were killed, central and southern Chile were hit by one of the most powerful seismic events in history when an 8.8 quake struck on Feb. 27, killing about 700 people.
The epicenter of Sunday's main quake was near the Mexican town of Guadalupe Victoria, a wine-producing region about 30 miles south of Mexicali-Calexico and 220 miles southeast of Los Angeles. Bridges collapsed around the town and concrete irrigation canals were badly damaged. At about six miles underground, it was a relatively shallow quake, which enhances the potential for devastation.
In Mexicali, Calexico and even parts of San Diego County, electrical power failed, water was cut and gas leaks were reported. The Mexican federal electrical company said transmission lines from Tijuana, the Rosarito substation and the lines that connect Baja California to Imperial Valley, Calif., were all affected.
In Los Angeles, seismologist Lucy Jones of the USGS said the fault involved in Sunday's quake was probably the Laguna Salada, which is about 43 miles long and straddles the California-Mexico border. A magnitude 8.2 quake occurred on the same fault in 1890, Jones said, centered in a location north of Sunday's temblor. Geologists will need to physically observe the fault before making a definitive determination of the quake's origin, she added.
The quake moved from the southeast toward the northwest, explaining why Southern California felt it so strongly.
Occurring at the junction between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates that grind against each other in California and Baja California, the quake occurred on a strike-slip fault, which splices vertically through the Earth's crust causing the surface land to move horizontally.