25 years later, the infamous earthquake that shook Santa Cruz County to its core
On a pleasant Tuesday afternoon in the fall of 1989, Santa Cruz County residents were going about their lives as usual—some were getting out of work, while others were just basking in the grassy knolls of the Pacific Garden Mall, none of them suspecting that their lives would soon be shaken, and the world they knew would come crashing down.
At 5:04 p.m. on Oct. 17, 1989, the 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake struck Santa Cruz County, and was felt in eight surrounding counties from its epicenter approximately 11 miles beneath the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park.
An aftershock measuring 5.2 on the Richter scale quickly followed, as did countless others throughout the night and in the weeks after. In the end, the quake took the lives of six Santa Cruz County residents, and injured hundreds more. Thousands of homes and businesses in the county were damaged, and hundreds were destroyed.
Although the earthquake took place 25 years ago this month, those who were there describe the event in vivid detail, like it happened yesterday.
“It looked like Beirut, or a war zone. There were blown up buildings everywhere,” says GT photojournalist Chip Scheuer, who will soon have one of his iconic earthquake images installed at the Museum of Art & History (MAH). “It looked like a drunken Godzilla had just gone stomping through downtown.”
Scheuer had been snapping photos for local news publications like the Register-Pajaronian for 10 years. On that fateful day in October, he found himself instinctively running toward the plumes of smoke, and not away from them. “I had covered a lot of different stuff, but always in the back of your mind, you’re wondering how you’re going to react when literally all hell breaks loose,” says Scheuer.
Scheuer will be discussing his photographs of the quake’s aftermath at the MAH at 5:30 p.m. on First Friday, Oct. 3. A collection of his work will be on display.
Third District County Supervisor-elect Ryan Coonerty, who was 15 years old at the time of the quake, also recalls the details of that seemingly normal day in 1989 in near-photographic detail.
“I remember what a beautiful day it was,” says Coonerty. “It was like a perfect fall day.”
At the moment that the quake occurred, Coonerty was changing after football practice in the locker rooms of Santa Cruz High School. “Like most high schools, it has those square ceiling tiles. They just started falling everywhere. So we all ran out onto the field half-dressed and waited for it to end,” he says.
After the initial quake ended, Coonerty dressed and went straight home. His family was safe, but the building that housed their business, Bookshop Santa Cruz, was rendered structurally unsound, and would have to be demolished with all the inventory still inside.
City officials later gave Coonerty’s father, Neal, two days to go in and salvage as many books as possible, but if the building were to collapse in the process, no one would be sent in to rescue them. With that, Neal Coonerty put out a call for volunteers to help in the task.
“Over 400 people showed up and all signed waivers that said they knew they could die. Then they went in and carried the books out one by one,” says Coonerty. “My sister, who runs the bookstore now, still tells that story to every employee that we hire so that they know how in debt we are to the community. The community literally showed up and put their lives on the line to help our store.”
Red Cross employee, Brett Taylor, then a Santa Cruz firefighter, had the day off when the quake hit. He remembers the day vividly.
“We had a little off-day picnic out at DeLaveaga Park,” says Taylor. “We were packing up to go, and wham, we felt the earthquake, and I swear I saw a wave going through the field, and boom, I felt this jolt.”
Taylor and his fellow firefighters then went to Santa Cruz to check things out.
“It was like a bomb had gone off downtown. The whole town was in a panic, and it was amazingly quiet,” says Taylor. After helping out at the fire station that evening, Taylor went home. Besides a broken chimney and some shattered dishes, Taylor’s home had not suffered any damage, but his children were spooked. His family slept outside for days after, and then in the same room of their home for six months after that.
“Everybody was just scared, freaked out, and worried about aftershocks,” says Taylor. “It was the fright of our lives.”
To this day, Taylor stores emergency supplies at work, in his car, and at home just in case another similar event strikes in the future.
Emily Reilly, owner of Emily’s Bakery, recalls the sound of the 1989 earthquake as it shook the Westside of Santa Cruz.
“The first thing I remember is hearing the noise. It sounded like this roaring train,” says Reilly, who later served as mayor of the city. “I could see the tree in my backyard whipping back and forth—practically touching the ground outside—and my husband was downstairs yelling ‘I love you, Emily.’”
Reilly made her way down the stairs from the second floor of her home on King Street while the ground was still shaking. When the quake ended and the dust cleared, Reilly witnessed something that has stayed with her for 25 years: “The tree was upright, and the birds that had been flying around just went back to sitting in the tree. For them, it was all over. It was no big deal.”
Reilly then checked up on friends and her bakery to assess the damage, which was minimal, but the power was out, and all the batters prepared for the next day were soon to spoil. The bakery still had operating gas stoves, so Reilly and her crew baked everything off and gave it away.
In the disaster’s wake, others decided to aid their wounded communities in similar ways. Jozseph Schultz, the owner of India Joze, was setting up for the dinner rush when the quake hit. Because the steel building on Center Street where the restaurant was located withstood the shock relatively unharmed, Schultz decided to stay open, and feed the weary “quake refugees.”
“It was incredibly, devastatingly shocking for a lot of people, and people needed a place to go and share, and sort of decompress, and so India Joze was quite a center of people,” says Schultz.
In spite of the destruction that happened that day, Schultz sees the event as a warm moment in local history, as people came together to help each other. “It was a pretty positive time,” he says. “Everyone had the attitude that, ‘We can deal with this. We can come together and work this out.’”
Although the city of Santa Cruz experienced tremendous losses from the event, other areas of the county were also greatly affected by the Loma Prieta earthquake.
In South County, former Watsonville mayor Oscar Rios was running for the Watsonville City Council and getting ready for the upcoming election when the quake struck.
“It was an experience I will never forget,” says Rios. “The day of the earthquake we were in the fourth floor of our office, and we were just getting ready to go campaigning when the building started shaking and rolling, and shaking and rolling. And I thought, ‘We were going down, man.’”
Rios and the members of his campaign ran out of the building, and began walking around the city looking to help his fellow citizens, especially those who did not speak English.
“In the first five days, I made my committee an earthquake committee, and the plaza became the headquarters,” says Rios.
Downtown Watsonville suffered considerable damage from the 1989 quake. Despite its reconstruction in the subsequent years, it never truly recovered like Watsonville’s Westside, which was developed after the downtown was destroyed, says Rios.
“Watsonville has still been having a hard time compared to Santa Cruz,” he says. “As much as we tried to do by bringing businesses downtown, it’s been real hard because the economic base of Watsonville is very, very low.” PHOTO: Firefighter Dave Gigliotti walks from a building fire in Santa Cruz after the 1989 earthquake, 25 years ago this month. CHIP SCHEUER