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Two dead as quake hits central California
( 2003-12-23 09:34) (Agencies)

An earthquake rocked California's central coast Monday and shook the state from Los Angeles to San Francisco, collapsing old downtown buildings in this small town and killing at least two people in the rubble.

The 11:16 a.m. quake ! its magnitude measured at 6.5 ! pitched the roof of Paso Robles' 1892 clock tower building into the street, crushing a row of parked cars in this San Luis Obispo County town about 20 miles east of the epicenter.

Resuce workers rush to remove bricks from crushed cars under the remains of a collapsed two-story building in Paso Robles, Calif., following an earthquake Monday, Dec. 22, 2003.  [AP]
It was the most powerful quake to strike California since a 7.1 quake rocked the desert near Joshua Tree more than four years ago. No one was killed in the 1999 quake.

The main shock Monday 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 larger than 3.0, the biggest of which was estimated at 4.7, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The quake shook the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, the estate of the legendary publisher William Randolph Hearst. The castle ! a particularly popular tourist attraction this time of its year because of its Hearst family Christmas ornaments ! reported no injuries and no immediate signs of any serious damage but was evacuated as a precaution.

The quake also 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 southeast, felt a sustained rolling motion.

"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."

In Paso Robles, a town of 25,000 people in a region dotted with wineries and horse ranches, firefighters dug through the debris of the collapsed row of stores in the clock-tower building.

The bodies of two women, ages 55 and 19, were found outside a dress shop, said police Sgt. Bob Adams, while two people with minor injuries were pulled from a bakery. No names were immediately released.

"We're still in rescue mode and trying to find additional victims," Adams said at midafternoon. "The good news is that at this point, we have no confirmed missing person."

Nick Sherwin, 61, who operated Pan Jewelers in the building, said he had ordered five employees and eight customers out, but "the big jolt hit" when he was about 10 feet from the door.

"My roof basically jumped onto the street and landed on cars with people in them," Sherwin said as he watched firefighters recover the bodies. The cars "are crushed like little toys, nothing left."

Marilyn Curry watched the buildings collapse from her law firm across the street, then ran to a city park where people were frantically searching for others they knew.

"There were people shouting outside 'Oh my God, Oh my God,'" she said. "Everybody was just shaking, then we were all just grabbing onto each other.

"There was a lot of hugging going on. We were all just accounting for each other: 'Have you seen so and so? Have you seen so and so?'"

Other than Paso Robles, damage appeared minor elsewhere in the region. Several people were reported hurt by falling barrels at a winery, San Luis Obispo County authorities said.

About 10,000 homes and businesses were without power in the San Luis Obispo area, said John Nelson, spokesman for Pacific Gas and Electric. Phone service became spotty as the system quickly became overloaded.

At the Hearst Castle, the only known damage was a blown transformer in the campground below the hill, said Roy Stearns, spokesman for the state Department of Parks and Recreation. But a crew was being organized to go through each of the castle's 150 rooms to look more carefully.

The quake was felt in the control room of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant operated by PG&E. Nelson said that there appeared to be no damage to the plant and that it was functioning normally, but officials would conduct a "walk-through" to be sure.

The quake struck in a known fault zone on a series of faults that run parallel to the San Andreas Fault, said Lucy Jones, scientist in charge of the U.S. Geological Survey office in Pasadena.

"It's luckily on the coast ! there is not very much nearby. That's a good thing," she said.

The last one of a similar size in the area was in 1952, said Ross Stein of the USGS in Menlo Park.

"This probably shook strong enough you would expect all kinds of damage to the contents of houses," said Tom Heaton, professor of earthquake engineering at the California Institute of Technology. He added landslides were also possible.

Superintendent Pamela Martens of the Coast Unified School District in Cambria said school was already recessed for the holidays and there were no reports of injuries among staff.

"Right now we're seeing things off the shelf and all over the place. Computers are down," she said.

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