Ten Worst Tragedies or Catastrophes to Occur in California

The most catastrophic or tragic events in modern California history.
The Top Ten
1 The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

On April 18, 1906, at 5:12 am, the Bay Area was struck by a very shallow (5 miles deep) 7.9 earthquake that shook for about one minute. The exact location of the epicenter is still debated. The quake was felt from Oregon to Los Angeles. The quake caused massive fires throughout San Francisco and the surrounding areas that lasted several days. Downtown Santa Rosa was completely leveled, and 80% of the city of San Francisco was destroyed. As many as 3,000 people were killed, and around 300,000 out of a population of about 400,000 were left homeless. It has the highest death toll of all California natural disasters.

2 L.A. Riots

At the end of the game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, something similar to this event happens. The game is also set in 1992.

April 29 - May 4, 1992. Also known as the Rodney King Riots.

The buildup: After years of claims of police discrimination, abuse, corruption, racism, and brutality from the LAPD, the nation was introduced to proof of these claims. On March 3, 1991, Rodney King and two passengers sped off after a Highway Patrolman attempted a traffic stop on their vehicle. After fleeing from the CHP along the freeway and surface streets, Rodney King came to a stop in a residential neighborhood. The Highway Patrol placed all three under arrest and had the two passengers cuffed and in the patrol car when five LAPD officers, called in for backup during the chase, told the CHP they were taking tactical command of the situation.

The officers holstered their firearms and proceeded to swarm and beat King, who was the last one out of the car. They circled King, tasering him numerous times, kicking and punching him, and clobbering him repeatedly with their batons (33 times) using "power strokes." The beating was caught on film by a man from his apartment balcony. The cops tried to justify the beating by claiming they believed King was under the influence of PCP. Tests later showed King had no PCP in his system. The 12-minute video of the beating was shown all over the local and national media, shocking and appalling the public. Residents of Los Angeles and its surrounding areas stressed that these kinds of police beatings were common. Because of the public outcry from the video, four LAPD officers (one being a sergeant) ended up getting charged with assault and use of excessive force.

Due to the high profile of the case, the lawyers representing the officers asked for and were granted a change of venue for the trial so that the officers could get a "fair" trial. The trial was moved from Los Angeles County to Simi Valley in Ventura County. Simi Valley is an affluent, predominantly white city. Also at the time, tensions were high from the lenient sentence of a female Korean... more

3 The 1994 Northridge Earthquake

On January 17, 1994, at 4:30 am, a previously unknown fault, now named the Pico Thrust Fault, unleashed a 6.7 earthquake at a depth of 11 miles (18 km). The ground shook for around 20 seconds. The main shock was followed by two 6.0 aftershocks, one of which collapsed a freeway transition overpass while a motorcycle cop was on it. The cop rode off and fell over 40 feet to his death.

This quake killed 61 people, injured over 8,700, and caused up to $44 billion in damages. There were many building collapses. An entire apartment complex collapsed in Northridge, killing 16. Anaheim Stadium's scoreboard fell onto the seats. The quake was felt as far as Las Vegas. Due to the early time of the quake and it happening on a federal holiday (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day), many lives were probably spared. The quake also caused an outbreak of Valley Fever due to airborne fungus spores being inhaled. Over 200 cases were reported, with 3 resulting in death.

Even though I've been through bigger quakes magnitude-wise, this was the gnarliest quake I've ever felt. The shaking was so violent. Depending on the type of fault, location, and depth of the quakes, they produce different "feelings." Some feel like the ground is sliding on ice, some feel like repeated jolts, some feel like a steady long rumble, and some feel like literal small waves under your feet. But this quake, man, it felt like a giant picked up my house and just shook the crap out of it.

4 The Tubbs Fire

From October 8, 2017, to October 31, 2017, the most destructive wildfire ever in California, named The Tubbs Fire because of the street where it started, Tubbs Lane, burned parts of Napa, Sonoma, and Lake counties, with the city of Santa Rosa being the most affected. The Tubbs Fire was one of fourteen large wildfires that broke out in Northern California during that October. Eight different counties were simultaneously burning due to the combination of these fires, which were dubbed "The Northern California Firestorm." The Tubbs Fire alone burned a total of 36,807 acres, destroyed 5,643 structures, took 43 lives, and injured 1 person. The total cost of the damages was $1.2 billion. It is still unknown how the fire started.

5 The 1989 "World Series Earthquake"

On October 17, 1989, at 5:04 pm, a 6.9 earthquake struck the Bay Area. The quake was about 12 miles (19 km) deep and was centered about 10 miles northeast of Santa Cruz on a section of the San Andreas Fault. The shaking lasted around 10-15 seconds. The quake caused 63 deaths, injured 3,757 people, and caused $6 billion in damages. About 1.4 million people had no power for a little over two days.

Some more interesting notes about the quake: because game 3 of the World Series was being televised live from San Francisco's Candlestick Park, this was the first earthquake to ever be broadcast live across the nation.

The World Series that year was a "freeway series" between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A's. Many theorize that the death count would have been a lot higher if the World Series hadn't been on at the time. That's because the quake happened during rush hour, and traffic on the streets and freeways was a lot lighter than normal due to people getting off work early and/or rushing home to watch the game.

A lot of transportation structures suffered major damage. The worst was the double-deck Cypress Street Viaduct portion of Interstate 880. A 1.25-mile section of the upper deck of the freeway collapsed onto the bottom deck in Oakland. There were 42 deaths and many injuries at this site.

I saw an interview with a survivor who was trapped under the freeway in his crushed car. His story was really eerie. He said everything suddenly went black. He came to hearing injured and dying people moaning and an incredibly loud sound. When he got his wits back, he realized the loud sounds were coming from the engines of the cars that were all crushed around him. It was all the car engines being revved all the way up because the crushed people inside had their legs pressed down on the accelerators.

He said the moans of the people eventually stopped after a while, but the car engines went on for many, many hours. He was the only... more

6 PSA Flight 182

On September 25, 1978, at 9:01 am, PSA Flight 182 was approaching San Diego International Airport for landing when it collided with a Cessna, killing all 137 people between the two planes. An additional 7 people were killed on the ground as the planes came crashing down 3 miles from the airport in the suburban neighborhood of North Park. It is the deadliest plane crash in California history. NBC News in San Diego actually caught on film the Cessna in a nosedive spin before impacting the ground and the fireball explosion on impact. A photographer caught two shots of Flight 182 after the collision: one with the plane in a dive with its right wing damaged and on fire, and another with the plane more engulfed in flames moments before slamming into the neighborhood at 300 mph.

7 The San Ysidro McDonald's Massacre

On July 18, 1984, a 41-year-old psychopath named James Huberty kissed his wife goodbye and told her he was leaving to hunt humans. A short time later, at 3:56 pm, he arrived at a McDonald's in the San Ysidro neighborhood of San Diego. He had a 9mm pistol, an Uzi, a 12-gauge shotgun, and a bag full of ammo as he walked into the restaurant.

He pointed the shotgun at a 16-year-old employee and pulled the trigger, but the gun misfired. The employee, named John Arnold, thought it was a joke and walked away while the assistant manager, 22-year-old Neva Caine, walked towards the gunman. Huberty discharged his shotgun into the ceiling, then pointed his Uzi at Caine, shooting her once in the face, killing her. He then shot Arnold with the shotgun in the chest, wounding him.

Huberty began screaming and cursing at the patrons. At that moment, a 25-year-old named Victor Rivera tried to plead with the gunman not to shoot anybody else. Huberty shot Rivera 14 times while screaming "Shut up!" over and over as Rivera screamed while repeatedly being shot. The customers were all taking cover under tables and booths.

Huberty turned his attention to a group of women and children huddled together. He shot a 19-year-old woman, killing her with a single shot to the chest with his Uzi. Then he shot a 9-year-old boy 9 times (stomach, cheek, thigh, hip, leg, chest, back, armpit, and head), killing him. The 9-year-old's 15-year-old sister was wounded with a shot to the chest from his shotgun. Again using his shotgun, he shot at and wounded an 11-year-old girl who was being shielded by her pregnant 18-year-old aunt. Huberty then shot and killed the pregnant woman 48 times with his Uzi.

The pregnant woman's 8-month-old baby was screaming and crying next to his mother's bloody lifeless body. The scumbag shouted at and then actually shot and killed the infant in the back with his handgun. Huberty then walked around, shooting and killing a 62-year-old man. He got to the... more

8 The Oakland Firestorm of 1991

From October 19 to 20, 1991, although a relatively small wildfire, burning only 1,520 acres (compared to California's largest wildfire, The Thomas Fire at 281,893 acres), it was the second most destructive wildfire in California. It killed at least 25 people, injured over 150, and burned down 2,843 homes and 437 apartment and condominium units. The fire started as a small grass fire, which the fire department responded to and put out - or so they thought. After the firemen left, the fire reignited and spread quickly due to wind gusts that were at 65 mph that day. The fire caused more than $1.5 billion in damages.

9 Watts Riots

August 11-16, 1965.

The buildup: Los Angeles County had restrictions that banned African and Mexican Americans from renting or buying houses in certain neighborhoods and areas around the county. In 1910, these "certain areas" comprised 80% of the county. By the 1940s, 95% of all housing in Southern California was off-limits to African and Asian Americans. These "restrictions" severely limited educational and economic opportunities for the African American community.

Another major contributor to the riots was the passing of Proposition 14, which overturned the Rumford Fair Housing Act designed to address racial residential segregation. Added to that was police brutality. In 1950, William H. Parker was sworn in as Los Angeles chief of police. He created a militarized police force, recruiting many officers from the South who had racist tendencies. This led to numerous claims of police discrimination and brutality from minority communities.

The spark: On August 11, 1965, a 21-year-old African American man named Marquette Frye was pulled over by the police for reckless driving. After failing a field sobriety test, he was placed under arrest. His brother, who was in the car with him, walked to their house, which was down the street, and came back with their mother.

From here, there are many different stories about what actually happened. Most say the mother was shoved to the ground, and then his brother attacked the officer. The police, who had backup by then, did their typical L.A.P.D. beatdown on the family before placing them under arrest. A crowd had gathered by then and began cursing and throwing rocks and bottles at the officers. As police tried to gain control and disperse the angry pedestrians, the mob just grew bigger and bigger.

The riot: Over 46 square miles of Los Angeles became a war zone for six days. By August 13, 2,300 National Guardsmen were called in. By the next night, 16,000 law enforcement personnel started... more

10 The 1986 Cerritos Mid Air Collision

On August 31, 1986, at 11:46 am, Aeromexico Flight 498 (DC-9) was on approach to land at LAX when it was struck by a small private single-engine plane (Piper PA 28-181 Archer). The small plane was owned by the Kramer family. Apparently, the pilot of the Piper wasn't from the area but tried to use landmarks to navigate from Torrance, CA to Big Bear, CA. The pilot got confused and wandered into LAX restricted airspace.

While in restricted airspace, the Piper collided with the incoming Flight 498. The Piper's engine clipped the DC-9's left horizontal stabilizer, which sheared off the cockpit of the small plane, decapitating the pilot and both his passengers. The Piper fell to the ground and landed upright in a playground of an elementary school. Thankfully, it was on a Sunday, so there were no children there.

As for Flight 498, the collision tore off the plane's vertical and horizontal stabilizer (tail section of the plane), sending the plane rolling over and into an inverted nosedive, crashing nose-first into homes in a Cerritos neighborhood. Flight 498 exploded upon impact with the houses, killing 15 and injuring 8 on the ground. All 64 people on board the plane were killed. A total of 82 casualties.

A photographer was able to get a picture of the plane in an inverted nosedive moments before hitting the ground. A side note to this story is my uncle lived in this neighborhood at the time of the crash. The plane impacted the ground right around the corner from his house. He said after hearing the impact and explosion, he ran outside to see what was happening. As he ran down his street and turned the corner to where the smoke was coming from, a person ran past him on fire. Unfortunately, I believe he was one of the 15 killed on the ground.

He also said he had plane parts and human flesh in his yard and on his roof. The coroners and investigators had to go in his yard and on his roof to retrieve the "parts."

The Contenders
11 Fire in Santa Rosa, CA 2017
12 The Camp Fire
13 2008 Universal Studios Fire
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