Strong quake shakes Calif.

6.5 magnitude temblor felt from L.A. to San Francisco

At least 2 die in Paso Robles

Main shock in rural area

Hearst Castle evacuated

December 23, 2003|By Gary Polakovic, Daryl Kelley and Robin Fields | Gary Polakovic, Daryl Kelley and Robin Fields,LOS ANGELES TIMES

PASO ROBLES, Calif. - A deadly magnitude 6.5 earthquake shuddered through California's central coast yesterday morning, crumpling a historic building in Paso Robles and causing the deaths of at least two people.

The 20- to 30-second temblor - the strongest in the area's modern history - smashed shop windows, caused fires and interrupted power through parts of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties. The earthquake rocked the federal courthouse in San Francisco, 165 miles to the northwest of the epicenter, and sent the building's upper floors swaying for about 30 seconds. People in downtown Los Angeles, 185 miles to the southeast, felt a sustained rolling motion.

The main shock, at 11:15 a.m., was centered in a sparsely populated area about 11 miles north of the coastal town of Cambria. It was immediately followed by at least 50 aftershocks of greater than 3.0 magnitude, the biggest estimated at 4.7, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

"It was pretty sharp," said Sharyn Conn, receptionist at the oceanside Cypress Cove Inn in Cambria, population 6,200. "It really went on and on. I just got everyone under the door frames and rode it out."

The state's central coast was hit hardest. State Road 46 cracked and shifted. Barrels of wine went tumbling at vineyards. Rescue efforts centered on a square in downtown Paso Robles, where emergency crews shoveled through pulverized brick for much of the day, looking for survivors feared trapped in a toppled shopping strip.

The roof slid off a two-story brick building that framed the north side of the town's central park, creating a pile of rubble that killed two women who worked in a boutique there.

"I saw it crack the entire length of the building, about 150 feet," said Bill Ridino, 51. The building, more than 100 years old, "just wiggled forward and collapsed," he said.

The bodies of Jennifer Myrick, 19, of Atascadero, and Marilyn Zafuto, 55, of Paso Robles, were recovered on the sidewalk outside Ann's Dress Shop, one of four businesses in the building.

The earthquake struck as many Californians rushed to complete their Christmas shopping and as the state tightened security in response to a heightened terror alert. The first rumbling prompted many to fear a man-made disaster.

Though far less intense than the 1994 Northridge quake, it was the state's strongest jolt since 1999, scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey said.

The quake's epicenter was about six miles northeast of Hearst Castle in San Simeon. The historic mansion built by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst suffered little damage, but visitors were immediately evacuated.

In Paso Robles, the earthquake buried cars parked outside the damaged building. The temblor's force whipsawed the clock tower - mounted on the building's corner - across the street, where it plummeted in front of Marlowe's Interiors.

"All of a sudden it started shaking and rolling," said Barbara Lewin, who owns a cosmetics and clothing shop nearby. "Somebody shouted, `Everybody out!' and we started to run. We got past the sidewalk by the cars and all of a sudden there was dust and debris flying everywhere. Across the street, the entire building just came down right in front of us like a waterfall. It was very traumatic. We're very fortunate it wasn't worse."

Diane Reed's store, Rose in the Woods, and two of her cars were destroyed when the shopping strip's roof buckled. She cried as she recalled seeing her daughter, who works across the street, running toward the ruins, thinking Reed had died.

When the ground started to move, Olivia Aguirre, 11, was shopping around the corner from the collapsed building with her mother, Lena, and her friend, Meagan Hernandez, 13.

"Those stores were full of people," Lena Aguirre said. "We started swaying back and forth, and it seemed like the door kept getting smaller because everybody was trying to get through the door at the same time."

They squeezed out, then ran to the town's main square.

"We saw the bricks just flying off the building like they were being thrown," Hernandez said.

Emergency workers worked into the night, digging through the rubble to make sure they had found everyone caught in the collapse.

"We're still in rescue mode today," said Paso Robles Police Sgt. Bob Adams. "We won't be in recovery mode until tomorrow at least."

Forty people, including two from the site of the roof collapse, were treated at local hospitals for bumps, bruises and broken bones, as well as chest pains.

Paso Robles Mayor Frank R. Mecham, who works as a financial adviser about a block from the damaged building, barely escaped injury.

"I was in my office talking to one of my elderly clients and the earthquake just started shaking everything," he said. "I shoved her under my desk and realized I had nowhere to go."

Deciding that safety outweighed etiquette, he ducked under the desk on top of her.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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