Earthquake toll soars as block of flats collapses: Tremor centred in San Fernando Valley kills at least 24, buckles roads and starts fires - Bill for disaster could run into billions

THE death toll in the Los Angeles earthquake rose to at least 24 last night, more than half of whom died when an apartment building suddenly concertinaed on to its own ground floor. The collapse of the complex was yesterday emerging as the worst tragedy inflicted by the quake, which also buckled freeways, started fires and causes hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.

President Bill Clinton declared southern California a federal disaster area and said the US government was pulling out all the stops to rush aid there. 'Our hearts and prayers go out to the people of southern California,' he said as he signed the disaster declaration.

More than 12 hours after the earthquake rippled across southern California, police said they had recovered 14 bodies from the apartment block, which was reduced from a three-storey building to two in a matter of 30 seconds.

'The whole building was thrown into the air and then crashed down on to itself,' said Susan Pearson, 29, a resident who escaped the building in Northridge, at the epicentre of the earthquake. 'Everyone was screaming all around us.'

The earthquake that struck southern California before dawn yesterday was unusually destructive because it was centred in the San Fernando valley, where 3 million people live. Shocks hit the area from San Diego to Las Vegas. Cars and other vehicles travelling on the interstate highways were wrecked as the roadway buckled and, in some cases, collapsed. A policeman on a motorcycle died when part of a motorway collapsed in front of him, causing him to fall 150ft into the darkness.

An overpass on the Pacific Highway collapsed, seriously injuring a delivery van driver. Casualties would have been heavier if the earthquake had not struck so early in the morning at the beginning of a public holiday - Martin Luther King Day - when federal offices are closed. A 64-car goods train carrying sulphuric acid was derailed but none of the acid spilled.

'It was as if four people were standing at the corners of my bed shaking it like a trampoline,' says Susanna Hecht, who lives in a two- storey house set into the side of Topanga canyon five miles west of the earthquake epicentre in the San Fernando Valley. 'As soon as the quake started all the dogs in the neighbourhood became hysterical and started to run out of the houses. The worst moment was when we saw wildfires starting as small gas lines and mobile homes blew up.'

Ms Hecht, a professor at UCLA, sheltered under a door jamb, the recommended procedure during an earthquake. Most of her belongings were still in boxes because she had had to evacuate her house during the brush fires that hit Los Angeles at the end of 1993. Her chimney collapsed and water and electricity were cut off. Eight hours after the first big shock at 4.31am, aftershocks were still bringing down pieces of the chimney.

'We've got people we're pulling out all the time,' said Steve Bascom, a fire captain. The worst damage occurred where the ground was soft. Seismologists say that the quake was fairly shallow and this may have limited the amount of damage in the rest of the city. Outside a 20 mile (32km) circle centred on the epicentre most of the houses in Los Angeles suffered only cracked plaster and a few breakages.

It was the most serious earthquake to hit Los Angeles since the area was populated a century ago. Larger buildings are heavily earthquake-proofed, as are many private houses, though two out of three houses do not carry earthquake insurance. The quake occurred on an unmapped fault in the San Fernando valley, the Santa Monica hills becoming a little higher and the valley bottom sinking.

The most immediate impact of the disaster was a cut-off of electricity, water and gas in many areas. Ruptured gas mains ignited a number of big fires, and water pipes were fractured. Many people, fearing the aftershocks might get worse, ate from barbecues outside. Because the entire West Coast grid was affected there were power cuts as far north as Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington. A broken oil pipeline was pouring oil into the Santa Clara river.

In the Grenada Hills, fireballs were rising into the air from the gas mains. Aftershocks led to clouds of dust rising from rock slides. So far none of the local reservoirs have been ruptured. Nearby in Sylmar, the epicentre of an earthquake in 1971, at least 30 homes caught fire but most blazes were later brought under control. Local hospitals were swamped by casualties, mostly suffering from minor injuries such as cuts from broken glass.

Leading article, page 15

(Photograph omitted)

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