From left, Lucile Jones, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Paul Schulz of the… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
Millions of Californians paused their routines Thursday and participated in the Great ShakeOut, a simultaneous exercise billed as the largest earthquake safety drill in U.S. history.
Across the state in schools, offices, hospitals and — for the first time — Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, people dropped for cover at 10:18 a.m. as if the Big One occurred.
"This is the first time we're focusing on commuters for a ShakeOut event," said John Bwarie, a spokesman for the U.S. Geological Survey. "There's about 250,000 just in Southern California, based on numbers from 2008, that commute across the San Andreas fault."
The annual drill, with more than 9.4 million registered participants in California, aimed to remind the public what to do when the ground starts shaking: Drop, cover your head and hold on to something sturdy. Running outside is the worst possible idea because a building's facade is often the first part to collapse.
In Union Station, where more than 75,000 people pass through each day, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, USGS seismologist Lucile M. Jones, L.A.'s American Red Cross chief executive Paul Schulz, and Metropolitan Transportation Authority board member Richard Katz ducked underneath a large red table set up for the event.
Joanne Currie, 52, was walking into the station when dozens of people dropped to the floor in front of media cameras and covered their heads for the 100-second drill.
"Isn't this funny!" she said before following the instructions blasting over the speakers.
"You know, we don't have an earthquake procedure for our staff," she said to her husband. The two own a restaurant, and this was a good reminder to know what to do during an earthquake, she said.
Other passersby, coffee cups and briefcases in hand, hurried past, pausing only momentarily to gawk at the media throng.
The only minor glitch in the day was a Metro miscommunication. The control center thought it was conducting a simulation — and not a systemwide drill — and did not tell individual train operators to slow down and broadcast earthquake announcements as planned at 10:18 a.m., Bruce Shelburne, MTA interim executive director of rail operations, explained.
When the time came, trains continued to coast as usual, leaving many commuters unaware of the statewide event.
Transportation officials later slowed trains to restrictive speeds until 11 a.m. and made announcements about the ShakeOut. Shelburne reaffirmed that the rail system was well-prepared in the event of a real emergency.
The ShakeOut drills, organized by the Earthquake Country Alliance, have grown steadily since they began in Southern California in 2008, expanding to more than a dozen states and around the world.
A group from Japan stood by and observed the Union Station drill. They were at last year's ShakeOut and introduced the drill to Japan earlier this year.
"It's so simple," said Jiro Sawano, director of the Japan ShakeOut Network. "Japan has various drills, but in L.A. it's only 'drop, cover and hold on.' It's so easy to remember. Especially in emergencies."
Times staff writer Wesley Lowery contributed to this report.