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30 Years Later: A look back at the Loma Prieta Earthquake and the recovery that followed

Everyone has a story about where they were and what they were doing when the 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta Earthquake hit. It left behind a path of destruction that left dozens killed and thousands injured.

Santa Cruz County was no different. Multiple people killed in Santa Cruz, alone, as a direct result of this quake.

A death was also reported within the city of Watsonville.

“Everything was so horrible and scarce and crazy,” says Watsonville resident, Cynthia Chavarria. “You couldn’t get anywhere! We lived ten minutes away and it took us an hour or so to get home.”

Some witnessed the rescue efforts to help people trapped under the rubble of buildings in Santa Cruz. Some of those efforts ending in tragedy.

“Across the street from our shop was the Santa Cruz Roasting Company where two people unfortunately died when the building collapsed there,” says Santa Cruz resident, Dennis Hicks.

One of the big concerns the day after the quake hit was the inability to get ahold of loved ones.

“My parents and family who live in the San Joaquin Valley see the news and ‘two people killed in Downtown Santa Cruz Earthquake’…they had no idea if it was me or not for a week,” says Hicks.

John Marquez was 19-years-old at the time the quake hit. He was working at the Ford’s Department Store in Watsonville and was heading upstairs when the ground began shifting.

“I literally felt like I was bouncing three feet in the air,” says Marquez. “I was holding on to the railing to keep my ground and I noticed the ceiling starting to cave in.”

It was supposed to be an easy pay-day for Marquez and his co-workers. Instead it turned into a nightmare lasting weeks and even months.

“When the quake hit all I could think is ‘how can I help these people out?'” says Marquez.

For a few days after the quake, Marquez says his boss at the Ford’s Department Store at the time had some employees guarding the store from looters.

Meanwhile, around the corner was another story shared by Cynthia Chavarria, who lived in Watsonville at the time the quake hit.

Chavarria says it was right after sitting a pizza down on the counter of her family’s pizza restaurant when the quake hit.

“There was just this rush of people running out of nearby buildings and screaming,” says Chavarria. “When we got home it looked like someone ransacked our place.”

She says the fault went through her family’s backyard.

Chavarria also talked about being at the Bake Rite Bakery just hours before the quake hit. That bakery is where the only death was recorded within Watsonville city limits.

“The one thing I remember about that day is the fear in everyone’s eyes,” says Chavarria.

That fear was rampant as the quake’s epicenter was located at the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park in Aptos.

It’s impact rippled throughout, causing unimaginable destruction leading to deaths in the Bay Area and in Santa Cruz.

It was a structure collapse and falling debris that led to the deaths of multiple people in Santa Cruz.

Dennis Hicks was in Downtown Santa Cruz that day, getting ready to catch even a glimpse of the big Bay Bridge Series between the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s.

And then it happened….

“Lights started falling and clothing racks were falling,” says Hicks. “Eventually I yelled ‘go outside!'”

He says the street was moving in a snake-like motion. Trees were snapping back and forth, even smacking against the ground at times.

Then he looked up at the building where his store was located and saw it buckle. That’s when the windows shattered.

All in about 15 seconds.

“You heard people crying and shouting…screaming,” says Hicks. “Across the street from our shop was the Santa Cruz Roasting Company where two people unfortunately died when the building collapsed on them.”

One of the early reports in our archives shows that Dominican was accepting patients caught up in the middle of this disaster.

Deena Haynes was at Dominican when the quake hit and stuck around to help those in need of medication.

“It was heartbreaking,” says Haynes. “I remember walking around the next couple of days and it was just so surreal. Almost like we were all stunned by this.”

The quake served as a wake-up call to residents and city leaders.

A 2012 report by the city of Santa Cruz suggests portions of the city were prone to “liquefaction,” meaning a big enough earthquake can cause the soil to weaken tremendously.

Now, a seismic safety process/test is required for every building permit.

“After the 89 quake they mandated retrofitting of the older brick buildings,” says geologist, Robert Barminski. “It’s taken quite a bit of time for those buildings to be retrofitted.”

Barminski saw the “liquefaction” first-hand, as he was in the marine laboratory that got “cracked in half” by the historic Loma Prieta quake.

As far as “if” something like this will happen again, geologists all agree it’s simply a matter of “when” at this point.

“You need three things to be able to predict an earthquake,” says geologist Frank Perry of Capitola. “You need when, where and how big…without those three things your prediction means nothing.”

Some of the people I talked to say there’s simply no way of being ready for the next big one to occur.

“How many people are ready anyway? How many people can afford to go out and get two weeks worth of supplies for an emergency like this?” says Chavarria. “Most people live paycheck to paycheck anyway.”

Those that survived the quake say now they look back at all the efforts of first responders and community members to help each other get through this catastrophe.

“It shook us up in ways where we recognize what’s important and that we need to come together as a community,” says Haynes.

KION 2019

Santa Cruz County / Special Reports / Top Stories

KION546 News Team


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