Twenty years ago, Chip Scheuer was a photographer for the Pajaronian. He happened to be on the scene after the quake pummeled downtown Santa Cruz. The following is his story—in words and pictures.
THE GROUND WAS STILL SHAKING AS I ran toward a mushroom cloud of black smoke billowing from a home engulfed in flames on Myrtle Street across from the Santa Cruz High School pool. One of the residents was fleeing the inferno and I photographed him as firefighters battled the intense flames. Approaching Pacific Avenue, I couldn’t believe the devastation. Santa Cruz looked like a bad Japanese science fiction movie—as if a drunken Godzilla had stumbled through the center of town.
Peering through a cloud of redbrick dust it was obvious my hometown had been virtually destroyed by the powerful quake. Buildings had collapsed into the street burying cars and destroying trees, kiosks, and lamp posts. Terrified people where spilling out onto the street, comforting each other as best they could while rescue operations began.
Entering the pile of rubble that had only moments before been Ford’s Department Store right across the street from the old Good Times building, I encountered a desperate, grisly scene. Rescue workers were frantically digging out the victim—the tossed debris and still-falling bricks sounded like wind chimes clinking. That sound still makes me cringe. I spent the rest of the evening recording the havoc with my Nikons on Pacific Avenue, finally crashing at a friend’s house. I had been living at the St. George Hotel and never spent another night there. It was condemned that night.
As a photojournalist, unfortunately my biggest victories are other people’s worst nightmares, that is the nature of my work. The Loma Prieta Earthquake was the only time I have photographed my own disaster, losing most of my things but gaining a lot more compassion for the victims of other events I have since covered. Santa Cruz has always been a very nurturing, supportive environment for me and it was heartbreaking to see her hurt so badly. It still bothers me. It is hard to believe the earthquake occurred 20 years ago this week. It seems like yesterday and the space occupied by the old Roasting Company is still a hole in the ground. The earthquake ripped the heart and soul out of downtown but it united us in a vision for the community. I still love Santa Cruz but I miss the grassy knolls on Pacific Avenue where I used to sit and eat French bread, brie and strawberries. The Cooper House is gone so are most of the benches and planters, but Santa Cruz lives on.wenty years ago, Chip Scheuer was a photographer for the Pajaronian. He happened to be on the scene after the quake pummeled downtown Santa Cruz. The following is his story—in words and pictures.