Fifteen hundred mice died here today, an event one scientist called "an utter tragedy," and another labeled "an unmitigated disaster."

The words are not hyperbole for the scientists, because the mice were part of a million dollars' worth of federally financed biological research projects being conducted at the University of Southern California.

The mice died in the basement of the Andrus Gerontology Center at USC because a computer designed to control the temperature in their storage area malfunctioned, allowing the heat in the room to climb to 100 degrees.

"It's impossible to tell at this point how badly our projects will be affected," Dr. Harold Slavkin said. "Today's the day of the cyclone and we're still dusting ourselves off.

"It depends on several things," he said. "If the university can come up with the money fairly quickly so we can buy new animals, we could be all right."

Slavkin and the seven other researchers whose projects were affected were drafting a memo reporting the incident to the university.

"When we walked in the basement, it looked like the Guyana massacre of mice," Slavkin said. "Everywhere you looked there were dead mice. It was an awful sight. And an awful stench."

In all, 2,000 test mice were housed in the basement of the gerontology center. Slavkin said he was uncertain whether the 500 survivors would be of any use to the scientists. "If you were a scientist, would you want that kind of uncertainty hanging over your testing?"

Most adversely affected by the accident was the project of Dr. Caleb Finch, who was working on a series of experiments involving the aging process, specifically the effects of steroids of aging and how changes in the brain affect aging in the rest of the body.

Many of the mice in Finch's colony who died were 30 months old -- the equivalent of an 80-year-old human.

"We were fortunate that we had just completed an important phase of our testing," Finch said. "Otherwise, this could have been a complete wipeout. As it is, I feel completely destroyed right now."

Slavkin said that because of the way the federal granting system works, the scientists cannot request additional funding or extensions on their grant periods, which are from two to five years.

"What will happen is some of us may have to report that we couldn't complete steps three and four of a six-step project or steps one and three of a five-step project," he said.

Slavkin and Finch said it will take at least eight to 10 weeks for the scientists to get new mice -- if the university can supply the approximately $75,000 needed.

The scientists held no memorial services for the mice. "But," Slavkin said, "you better believe we're all in murning for them."