'Escape' Premise Absurd (The Sentinel/Aug 04/1996/US) By Scott Collins


"A 9.6 Quake Dumps California into the Pacific..."

That rumble you hear is the sound of scientists laughing.

"I thought the idea of California falling into the ocean went out 20 years ago," said seismologist Lucy Jones, referring to the premise behind John Carpenter's Escape From L.A., which opens Aug. 9 and is John Carpenter's science-fiction sequel to his 1981 Escape From New York.

In the new movie, a magnitude 9.6 earthquake has detached Los Angeles from the mainland, submerging the San Fernando Valley. Although the filmmakers say they've done research on temblors, there appears to be more fiction than science to the story.

Only one 9.6 quake has ever been recorded, in 1960 in Chile, said Egill Hauksson, a seismologist at Caltech in Pasadena, Calif. Such a quake could never occur in the City of Angels, he added, because the region's faults are neither wide nor deep enough to produce such a jolt.

"The biggest you could get in L.A. is maybe an 8.5," Hauksson said.

What a relief.

As far the San Fernando Valley, it actually rose several inches during the 6. 7 Northridge quake of 1994, Hauksson said.

Jones, who works at the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena, said that people's fear of losing control during an earthquake fuels apocalyptic scenarios, including the persistent myth that California will somehow "tumble into the sea," to quote an old song by Steely Dan.

In fact, local earthquakes are caused by the sliding movement of the Pacific and North American tectonic plates. The Pacific plate (on which Los Angeles is situated) is slowly drifting northwest, which means that in several million years, Jones said, "L.A. will be a suburb of San Francisco."

Now that will be a disaster.