Sunday’s Baja California earthquake fits a pattern in San Diego history: It was really big, and it was elsewhere.

Los Angeles, Imperial and San Bernardino counties have all been hit by big, destructive and deadly quakes. By contrast, our biggest quakes have been fairly mild, although at least one was a killer.

That 5.4 magnitude quake hit the ocean about 35 miles northwest of San Diego on July 13, 1986, at 6:47 a.m. The Oceanside Quake, as it was called, caused $1 million in damage and injured 29 people.

The injured included an 87-year-old man who was buried alive under thousands of books in his 12-foot-square downtown San Diego hotel room.

The many books “made it difficult for rescuers, who didn’t reach the seriously injured man until more than 11 hours after the temblor. Firefighters first had to hurl hundreds of tomes out the second-story window and into the hall at the Hotel Monte Carlo,” the L.A. Times reported. The man was rescued after 12 hours but later died, becoming the quake’s sole fatality.

It’s still not clear which fault line caused the quake.

The biggest quake in recorded local history appeared to have struck in 1862, on what the Los Angeles Star called San Diego’s “day of terror.”

In a 2005 story, San Diego Magazine recapped the events of May 27, 1862, when an earthquake — possibly of magnitude 6.0 — struck at about noon.

The quake “damaged buildings in Old Town, cracked the tower of the Point Loma lighthouse and opened the earth near the San Diego River mouth,” the magazine said.

The aftershocks kept coming, frightening those worried about another humdinger. “For 10 days, I slept in the corral; others imitated me in town,” reported a resident.

There have been plenty of other quakes, of course. One in 1803 damaged the San Diego Mission, back in the era when it owned 20,000 sheep and 10,000 cattle.

And in 1892, a quake that appears to have been centered in Baja California near Sunday’s temblor destroyed adobe buildings, cracked the walls of stone kilns, and destroyed a church and school in Paradise Valley. (That’s an apparent reference to a community in South Bay.) The quake was apparently around magnitude 7.0.

Other quakes struck elsewhere and were felt here, if only by a bit. In 1859, a giant earthquake in Japan spawned a tsunami that reached San Diego and raised the waves here … by six inches.


Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at and follow him on Twitter:

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