The San Andreas Fault let loose with a 6.0 magnitude earthquake Tuesday morning in rural Monterey County, Calif., fraying nerves and toppling teacups but otherwise causing little damage while providing seismologists with perhaps more data than any temblor in history.
With its epicenter near this town of population 37, the "strong" temblor struck at 10:15 a.m. It began with minor rumblings, grew to a shaking and eventually full undulations of the earth over the next half-minute, residents said.
George Jewell, 63, a stocky retired tractor driver who has lived in the area off and on for 50 years, was walking near the trailer that serves as the community library at 10:15.
And then he wasn't.
"Yeah, it knocked me on the ground," Jewell said. "I never been knocked on the ground by anyone or anything before. I got punched real good in Vegas one time, and it didn't knock me down that good."
People over a 350-mile stretch of California, from Orange County to Sacramento, reported feeling the quake. More than 150 aftershocks followed the temblor, including one with a magnitude of 5.0, which is considered moderate, and four others of 4.1 or higher.
Geologists attributed the relatively minor damage to California's strict, earthquake-minded building codes and to the fact that the temblor struck in a rural area.
Although 57 people died in the 6.7 Northridge quake in 1994 _ which prompted even stricter building requirements _ some 35,000 died in Bam, Iran, last December when a 6.6 magnitude quake demolished 85 percent of the city's mostly mud-and-straw buildings.
As John Varian, owner of the Parkfield Inn, put it: "There's no skyscrapers to fall down, so it's never a big deal."
Tuesday's quake, which was located at the seismically shallow depth of 4.9 miles, was of a type known as a "slip-strike" quake, which causes the ground to move horizontally, geologists said.
One of the most seismically active regions in the world _ and packed with more seismic instruments than any similar site _ the Parkfield area is home to residents accustomed to bolting paintings to the walls, securing glassware with double-sided tape and trying to make a buck off the ever-impending "Big One."
"Eat here when it happens!" advertises the Parkfield Cafe, where $15.95 will buy you the "Magnitude 6" top sirloin. "Sleep here when it happens!" beckons Varian's Parkfield Inn.
Although the quake caused relatively minor damage, a few partially crumbled ceilings and chimneys and the fresh memory of a magnitude 6.5 temblor San Simeon quake that killed two people last December in Paso Robles, 27 miles to the southeast, made Tuesday's quake especially jarring for some.
At the Work Family Ranch near Parkfield, the ceiling of the adobe house Kelley Work's grandfather had built in 1933 partially caved in and vases and pictures smashed to the floor, forcing the Works to take up residence in a guest house.
"I'm done being in this house," Work said. "It scares me to death."
Between the mid 19th century and mid 20th century, Parkfield experienced a 6.0 magnitude quake every 22 years, on average _ a regularity good enough in the unpredictable realm of seismology to prompt scientists to begin the Parkfield Experiment two decades ago.
Over the years they have filled the hills and dales, cracks and crevasses with hundreds of instruments _ seismometers, "creepometers," strain meters, global satellite positioning markers and nearly every other device used to study seismic movements both dramatic and subtle.
Tuesday's quake may well become the most-studied quake in history, scientists said.
"We expect to learn a lot, to get a lot of data from this earthquake," said California Institute of Technology seismologist Kate Hutton.