LOS ANGELES — A violent earthquake struck Southern California before dawn today, turning freeways into rubble, collapsing buildings with a savage power and igniting fires that sent swirls of smoke across the hazy, battered city. At least 24 people died.
The quake, centered in the San Fernando Valley, buckled overpasses on three freeways, trapping motorists in tons of concrete rubble. It severed Interstate 5, California’s main north-south highway, and Interstate 10, the nation’s busiest freeway.
“This place was moving like a jackhammer was going at it,” said Richard Goodis of Sherman Oaks, an affluent San Fernando Valley suburb. “Our bedroom wall tore away. I was looking at the ceiling one moment, then I was looking at the sky. I thought we were dead.”
The quake derailed a freight train carrying hazardous material and briefly closed several airports, including Los Angeles International. Power and telephone service were lost throughout Southern California.
Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and California Gov. Pete Wilson declared states of emergency, and President Clinton said he expected to issue a federal disaster declaration later in the day.
Wilson called out the National Guard. In addition, fire rescue teams responded from as far away as San Francisco.
The quake struck at 4:31 a.m., and measured a preliminary 6.6 on the Richter scale, said Kate Hutton, a seismologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Although not as strong as some quakes in recent years, it was unusually destructive because of its location in a populous area.
A swarm of aftershocks, some as strong as 5 on the Richter scale, jostled the region throughout the morning, and seismologists said they could continue for several days.
The dead, according to hospital and police reports, were:
— Fourteen people crushed to death in an apartment building in Northridge.
— Five people who died of quake-related heart attacks, three at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and two at Holy Cross Medical Center in Sylmar.
— Two people who died when a hillside home collapsed in Sherman Oaks.
— One woman who broke her neck when she slipped and struck a crib at her home in Rancho Cucamonga in San Bernardino County.
— A Los Angeles police officer whose motorcycle sailed off a severed freeway overpass, falling nearly 25 feet to the road below.
— A person who fell from a sixth-floor window at a downtown hotel.
Referring to the ruins of the Northridge apartment building, fire Capt. Steve Bascom said: “We’ve got a three-story apartment that’s now a two-story. … We’ve got people we’re pulling out all the time.”
The building, half a block from California State University, Northridge, housed mostly college students. An identical building next to it buckled, but didn’t collapse. Hundreds of people watched firefighters search the rubble.
The entire building “shifted north about six feet,” said fire Battalion Chief Bob De Feo. A third-floor resident, Eric Pearson, told Cable News Network that he felt a huge jolt that lifted the building off its foundation, moved it over and slammed it down.
In a dramatic and dangerous rescue nearby, searchers spent hours digging through the wreckage of a parking garage at the Northridge Fashion Center before pulling out a 35-year-old street sweeper alive. The quake had turned the multi-story garage into a 20-foot-high pancake of concrete, and transformed the mall’s Bullocks department store into a gnarled pile of concrete and steel.
Richard Andrews, California’s emergency services director, said the early hour and the Martin Luther King holiday reduced the number of people exposed to injury in the quake.
That was easy to forget in the chaos at the Sylmar hospital, which was swamped by more than 250 new patients. The hospital’s disaster coordinator, Mark Wallerstein, told those without serious injury to go elsewhere.
“We have no power, no laboratory, no X-rays, no pharmacy and almost no food,” Wallerstein told them. He later said the hospital was operating on emergency power.
In Los Angeles, Cedars Sinai was receiving “a tidal wave of walking wounded,” hospital spokesman Ron Wise said.
Three other hospitals, Holy Cross, Panorama City and Sepulveda, were forced to evacuate patients because of quake damage.
Sylmar, the epicenter of a devastating earthquake in 1971 that killed 65, was blanketed by a black haze of smoke. From the air, at least 30 to 40 homes could be seen burning.
Nearby in Granada Hills, water from broken water mains raged through the streets. In one of the weirdest effects of the quake, fireballs from ruptured gas mains exploded in the midst of the floods.
Residents formed lines, filling buckets with water from a swimming pool and tossing the water onto their homes, hoping to prevent the spread of fire.
Elsewhere, motorists driving north from Los Angeles on the Golden State Freeway saw fires raging out of control on both sides of the road, red balls of flame exploding 30 feet in the air.
Fires also were reported in Sherman Oaks and elsewhere in the region.
Throughout Los Angeles, the sound of burglar alarms, car alarms and emergency sirens blended into a constant wail.
Six people were arrested in downtown Los Angeles for looting, and an undetermined number of others were arrested in the San Fernando Valley.
Riordan said there had been “major damage” from the quake, but insisted that the city had the situation under control.
Perhaps the most dramatic damage from the quake was the freeway destruction, which threatened to cripple the region’s transportation system.
On the Santa Monica Freeway, Interstate 10, which ferries hundreds of thousands of commuters between the west side of Los Angeles and downtown every day, an overpass at Fairfax Avenue buckled like a wave, dropping to about six feet from street level.
“That freeway will be closed for quite a while,” Riordan said.
But far more horrific was the collapse of a four-level intersection of Interstates 5 and 14, known as the Golden State and Antelope Valley freeways. Cars could be seen crushed beneath the collapsed intersection; huge slabs of steel-reinforced concrete were splayed at crazy angles.
The collapse was not far from the scene of a similar disaster in 1971.
A portion of state Route 118, the Simi Valley Freeway, also collapsed.
The quake derailed a 64-car freight train, which leaked sulphuric acid from one of its tankers between the communities of Chatsworth and Northridge, Southern Pacific Railroad spokesman Jack Martin said. Hazardous materials crews were cleaning up the spill.
The city Department of Water and Power urged residents to boil drinking water contaminated by broken mains. At mid-day, at least 625,000 customers were without power in Central and Southern California, said Southern California Edison.
Because of the interdependence of Western power grids, brief power outages caused by the quake were reported as far north as Portland, Ore., and Seattle.
The epicenter of today’s quake was Northridge, according to Lucy Jones, a seismologist at the California Institute of Technology. Northridge is a college community in the valley 20 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.
The San Fernando Valley is a suburban expanse that spreads for 50 miles north of downtown. Most of it is within the city of Los Angeles.
U.S. Geological Survey spokesman Robert Wesson said of the quake: “It’s not the Big One we hear about so often. The real impact of this earthquake is because it has occurred in a metropolitan area.”
He added that he was surprised by the damage to the freeways because freeway construction standards were improved – and freeways upgraded – after the 1971 quake.
The quake was felt at least as far away as San Diego, 125 miles to the south, and Las Vegas, 275 miles to the east.
It lasted for 30 seconds or more, and several aftershocks followed within minutes. In homes throughout the area, dishes fell off shelves, fixtures swayed and furniture slid across floors.
In the San Fernando Valley community of Studio City, Jan Klunder said his apartment “looks like it’s been ransacked.” The toll included a china cabinet that fell onto his dining room table, pictures that tumbled off walls, a television that smashed onto the floor, a refrigerator that overturned, spewing its contents onto the floor, and kitchen cabinets that disgorged still more food.
The Federal Aviation Administration closed Los Angeles International Airport for about two hours as a precaution.
In Washington, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced it was setting up a regional operating center in Southern California to provide assistance to state and local officials.
Today’s earthquake followed about 12 quakes near Santa Monica, the strongest of which was 3.7. Hutton said she didn’t know whether those quakes were linked to today’s.
The last big earthquake to hit the area was on June 28, 1992. The Landers quake, east of Los Angeles, measured 7.5 on the Richter scale and was followed a few hours later by a magnitude 6.6 quake in the Big Bear area.