Published Monday, December 13, 1999, in the San Jose Mercury News

Doomsayers Are Batting Zero

Y2K provides another chance for failed prophets of disaster

BY GEOFFREY TOMB
Mercury News Staff Writer

What if nothing happens?

What if after years, months, days, hours, minutes and final seconds of Chicken Little-ing, the world wakes up on Jan. 1 to discover the great Y2K disaster is a yawner?

Actually, there are eons of precedent for Armageddons that never happen. Fact is, ever since time began people have been predicting that it was about to end in a cataclysmic disaster.

And there is one common link to each and every one of the forecasts of global gloom and doom.

``They have all been wrong,'' said Professor Richard Landes, founder and director of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University. Landes, a professor of medieval studies, said hysteria in 1000 wasn't much different than it is today, although computer breakdown makes today's a more secular end than a heaven-sent doomsday.

Yet despite a 100 percent failure rate, disaster predictions keep on coming and people keep believing the worst, said Landes. Why? Because no one can see into the future.

``As a result, we want to know about it, we fear it, we use it as a depository for our hopes, and, when someone who claims to know it comes along, we are susceptible to their rhetoric.''

Here is a look at some of the best and brightest, or dumbest and dimmest, predictions of disaster in our recent times:

IBEN Browning, a 72-year-old climatologist from New Mexico, alarmed America's heartland when he predicted, more than a year in advance, that a record earthquake would strike within 48 hours of Dec. 3, 1990. It would hit along the New Madrid Fault in Missouri, last struck in 1811.

As the Big One approached, schools were dismissed, businesses closed, National Guard troops alerted. Hundreds fled their homes, and thousands from Mississippi to Illinois stocked up on food and water.

They even canceled the annual Christmas parade in Pine Bluff, Ark. And on Dec. 3?

Oh, never mind.

CLAIMING to be a channel from a round table that included Jesus, Buddha, Pope John XXIII, Christopher Columbus, King Arthur, Merlin and the ``Cosmic Master Ray-o-Light,'' Elizabeth Clare Prophet warned that Dec. 31, 1989, would be the world's last New Year's Eve. Nuclear war and economic collapse would occur when Russia attacked the United States.

Prophet gathered 2,000 followers on a 12,000-acre ranch near Yellowstone National Park in Montana, where they built underground shelters to be safe from nuclear incoming.

Many of the group closed bank accounts and paid $10,000 to guarantee themselves a haven underground. They called their enclave Glastonbury, after the place in Britain said to be the sanctuary of King Arthur. They also ate macrobiotically and wore purple on Thursdays.

When war did not erupt on New Year's, Prophet updated her doomsday to April 23, 1990. And what happened?

Oh, never mind.

THE appearance of comets are sure signs of pending disaster. Remember the 1997 mass suicide in San Diego, when 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult killed themselves to shed their ``earthly containers'' to join a UFO tailgating the Hale-Bopp comet?

Less deadly was the worldwide fizzle experienced with the 1973-74 no-show of the Comet Kohoutek, which many feared would collide with Earth. Proclaimed as the Comet of the Century, so bright it would burn retinas and augur global catastrophe, the comet was a bust, barely visible. It is still known as the shy comet.

But none holds a candle to Halley's, a regular returnee every 76 years for the last 4.6 billion years. Halley's, last here in 1986, has been an ill omen for centuries. In 1910 it was suggested that all life would end when Earth passed through the comet's tail because the tail was made of deadly space gas. Thousands rushed out to purchase newly marketed anti-comet pills and gas masks.

Out in Oklahoma a group called the Select Followers determined that the only way to save the planet was to reach back to a tried-and-true method from another time and sacrifice a virgin. A candidate was actually chosen until police got wind of the plan and stepped in. And when the comet came?

Oh, never mind.

MORE recently, Paris designer Paco Rabanne, modeling himself more on Descartes than Chanel, said he had interpreted Nostradamus, dead since 1566 but still cited for his prescience. Rabanne said he learned that Paris would be destroyed at 11:22 a.m. on Aug. 11, 1999. The City of Light would be extinguished in flames by the crash of Russia's Mir space station during that day's solar eclipse, Rabanne claimed. A poll showed 10 percent believed this.

Rabanne fled to Brittany. A group of 1,000 unfortunates left behind gathered Aug. 11 at his Left Bank boutique and counted down to 11:22 a.m. ``Caramba! No Paco-lypse,'' shouted the champagne-sipping celebrants as the appointed hour came and went.

Rabanne, perhaps prodded by his bankers or his PR people, recanted.

``I made a massive mistake, a huge blunder, and now I publicly apologize,'' he said, just back from the country. ``I wish I'd never opened my mouth.''

``You know, I don't smoke, don't take drugs and I don't even drink,'' said the 65-year-old Rabanne. He did admit, however, that he is the reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian priest and an 18th-century prostitute in the court of Louis XV. And how did he know that?

Oh, never mind.

GARLAND, TEXAS, was the locale chosen for Chen Heng-ming who went there with 150 followers of God's Salvation Church. Chen, who said Garland sounded like Godland to him, predicted that at 10 a.m. March 31, 1998, God would descend via a flying saucer and save those who repented their sins. The rest would fry. Touchdown was to be at 3513 Ridgedale Drive in Garland, Texas, 75041.

``I guarantee this on my life,'' Chen said.

He promised a sign would come at 12:01 a.m. on March 24 via his television. When that didn't happen, Chen told his followers to regard his forecast for the 31st as ``nonsense.''

Chen moved on to Lockport, N.Y., and stayed in the doomsday biz. The new predicted final, final end is ``sometime late in 1999.''

Tick, tick, tick. . . .