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Memories of Loma Prieta

Thinking back, people would characterize the conditions on October 17, 1989, as "earthquake weather"—hot, still, strange. Little did they know that at 5:04 p.m., the San Andreas Fault would slip.

Here are your stories of that fateful day, in your own words. Many of you were UCSC students at the time. Some of you were new parents--or even in labor!--and now your children have become Slugs. Some are alums who remember Santa Cruz as it was before the quake and were shocked and heartbroken by Loma Prieta's devastation of the downtown.

For everyone, the 20th anniversary of the Loma Prieta Earthquake is a chance to reflect on our perceptions about the permanence of the earth, the solidity of the very ground beneath us, and what we really value in life.

Related stories

Porter College

Eyeball and I were in line @ the Porter Dining hall waiting for dinner (opening time was 5PM, if memory serves me) and this great, lumping noise like a train started up. We fairly quickly realized that it was an earthquake and we ran out the doors onto the lawn between the PO Boxes and the Porter Offices and watched the large glass windows of the student lounge shimmy and shake. Once that died down Eyeball and I went back inside to get dinner. Or we tried to anyhow. Alba, the dining hall student manager, was huddled in the doorway between the PO Boxes and the landing above the dining hall with a number of other students. At the top of her lungs she screamed at us to get the hell out of the building. We grumpily complied and then waited several hours with all of the other people on he lawn between Grad Student housing and Porter for dinner.

In retrospect I wish I had gotten on my Vespa and toured the town to see the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. Instead I went home the next day to see if Palo Alto was a smoking ruin......

Porter College

My grandfather died on Friday the 13th, so instead of rehearsing for a play that I was in, Wilhelm Reich In Hell, the entire weekend was spent making my way to Placerville and grieving with my family. My Dad drove me back to Santa Cruz on the following Monday and the next day I met him for lunch at a Pacific Garden Mall restaurant with beautiful brick walls on all sides....

I had transferred to Kresge so I could live in those great apartments they built on the other side of the bridge. My roommate Jedidiah Gass was bs'ing with me in our ground floor pad when it hit. The upper floors got to sway - we got all that intense vibration down below, and it just went on forever and ever and ever.

I remember:

-utilities being gone rather quick, but landline phone service ALWAYS works
-the newscameras focus on rubble only, so people still at the funeral wondered if I was dead
-local phone network jammed, so calling out of state relatives to put the word out I was okay
-running to the top of the mid-campus cow pasture and seeing the smoke rising from downtown
-everybody grabbing sleeping bags and blankets and spending the night in the pasture
-driving down to the beach with a bottle of Dr. Bonners and bathing in the waves
-free Sunny Delight for everyone
-1st weekend of Wilhelm Reich cancelled because the theater was precarious so...
-...agitated rehearsals getting ready for the 2nd weekend

Mary Kay
Kresge College

I was at a Union meeting on campus--the Lecturers' Union. I believe it was at Merrill, one of those huge, rock-solid concrete buildings hanging over a hill, used for meetings like that. it didn't even shake all that much, considering!

Of course i was immediately worried about my kids. We all just wanted to get home, and dispersed. Nobody really got how bad it was. It was really difficult to get off campus--the cars were all moving so slowly down the hill, because there were fires (smoke) everywhere--no electricity of course, so no lights no nothing. The most obvious signs besides the smoke of the fires were all the chimneys' having fallen off.

When i finally got home my kids (teenagers) were there, thank the gods. My daughter had been at weight-watchers and some nice person gave her a ride home. My son was everywhere, carrying a transistor radio and cruising the neighborhood checking on everyone. Most people came out of their homes, but I was sort of in shock. i got out my little single-burner propane camping stove so i could cook. But the aftershocks just kept coming and coming; every time i would turn off the stove and my daughter and i would get in the (one!) doorway jamb in the wide-open living/kitchen/dining area in the upstairs of my house. Then when the aftershocks (there were hundreds) were over, i'd light it again--i did that over and over and over!

In my house (in Aptos) the fridge had jumped about six inches, the 2nd-story porch had badly (maybe a foot) separated from the house, and one wall of dishes had fallen out and some had broken. it was a rough night, but it was only the beginning. Over the years i had worked for so many businesses downtown, like ten, because i did bookkeeping for an org that handled many. So many of those businesses just died.

College Eight

I had just gotten off of the bus, returning from campus to my house on the corner of Mission and Chestnut, when the quake hit.

Or, I should say, hit -- and kept right on hitting. I'd lived in California since 1982, so I was already getting a tad impervious to earthquakes -- but they'd previously usually only lasted a second or two, just a brief jolt, maybe a few aftershocks. Not this one.

The thing I can remember SO distinctly about it was the odd, surreal, and unsettling experience of... of... of WATCHING it. As it happened. Of thinking, "Hmmm. This is a huge earthquake. Hmmm. Wait -- it's still going. Hmmm. Wow, look at those chimeys falling down. Wait, no, it's STILL GOING."

15 unbelievable seconds. I've never experienced anything like it since.

Luckily, even though our house had extensive cosmetic damage (and probably a lot of structural damage too -- but somehow, thankfully or not, the "red-tag" people never came to inspect it), myself and the ridiculous number of people living in it were pretty unscathed -- so our post-quake experience was one of slowly all arriving back at the house, sharing our stories, and picking up a hell of a lot of glass. I can't even recall how long it was before any of us made our way a couple of blocks down the hill, to see what kind of damage had been unleashed on the Pacific Garden Mall...

What I do remember was sidewalk surfing -- literally -- for those crazy 15 seconds. And -- and this one is just totally etched in my brain -- seeing, in addition to all those falling chimneys, seeing a solid pane-glass window bizarrely pop right out of its frame, unbroken, before it shattered on the ground, there on Escalona Drive. That one memory is still the first thing that hops into my mind whenever I think back on the whole time...

Jamie (Skye)
Cowell College

Living in Santa Cruz, I was in New York City visiting a friend living in Manhattan the day of the Big Quake. Heading to dinner fairly late, the Cabbie tilts his head up, and in thick NYC accent says, "There's been an earthquake in California. The GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE FELL DOWN. Epicenter was in some place called Santa Cruz". I almost went through the roof! Golden Gate Bridge destroyed by an earthquake in Santa Cruz???

Not thinking to questioning the accuracy of the cabbies information I figured Santa Cruz must have been leveled, that I'd lost friends and aquaintences, and there would be no home at Cayuga Street when I flew back the next day. As the evening unrolled we got better information although all the focus was on the Bay Bridge, East Bay, and SF proper. That's where the reporters were.

My flight to San Jose the next day: in JFK airport people said no chance I'd get to Santa Cruz or even from LAX to San Jose airport. But the planes flew, SJO openned and late afternoon I was outside the SJO terminal, anxious to get to Santa Cruz wondering my next move as no busses or shuttles were running when a woman from the midwest came up to me.

She wanted to know how to get to Aptos, to her parents place that was badly damaged. Highway 17 was closed. But some angles spread its wings and Highway 9 was open for the moment. Volunteering to be her navigator we hoped into her rented car and against all odds worked our way to the top of Ocean Street. I stepped out of the car.

Immediately my senses were hit by three things I don't normally associate with downtown Santa Cruz. First, it was dead still. Not only no wind but no sounds of cars and trucks. Only sirens. Then came the smell of sewage and burnt material. This was mixed with strong, sweet b-bk-q smoke smells.

I felt like the guy who missed the party and showed up the next morning only to find bottles and glasses strewn about, wine stains and other unwanted liquids spewed, cigarrette butts everywhere. But the aftershock that came for weeks to come and unnerved us all gave a small taste of what happened at 5:04 PM. We spent the next week bicycling around checking on friends, helping pick up debris, like ants who just had their ant hill kicked.



Santa Cruz, CA
October 17, 1989

Bike to the crest of the hill and stop
before plunging into my life. It’s hard
to come to a place day after day for years
and see it afresh, even this—full curve of the bay,
rough mountains due east. Scan for landmarks
I love—a redwood shattered by lightning,
farmhouse that glows at dusk—some portal
into the present. Dumb cattle graze the ridge.
I’m tired; none of it matters tonight.

Gaze over tan hills down to the bay
when the shaking begins. “This is it!” I say
to no one. Not afraid: no roof above,
no people in sight. The land starts to ripple
from under my feet down to the sea.
Spread my legs for balance. The forest—
redwood and laurel below—thrashes,
a million prayer flags churning in storm.
Dust rises: a giant beast shaking itself.

Rumble, deeper than thunder—from everywhere,
nowhere—groans from the earth, surges, roars.
The cows knot together, stampede up-ridge—
and back, to flee a great train bearing down.
Five seconds . . . ten . . . fifteen . . . The engine veers,
passes. The cattle stop, eyes rolling.
Across a far field, people pour from a house,
voices hushed, then rising. Below, a long cheer
from the soccer fields. The city’s hum dies.

Roll downhill: my neighbors throng the street,
tenderly talking. My boys rush up—the fridge,
it spilled, we hugged the computer, the windows bent . . . !
C. drives in, shaking, flushed, from work—
helped her patients out, groped down littered stairs,
threaded through rubble, live downed wires,
dead streetlights, home. People are under
those buildings, I know it! They are.
We’re awake, and everything matters.

Charles Atkinson

Graduate Division

I had a pretty shocking experience with this quake, and 20 years later, though some of the precise details may be a bit fuzzy, I will never forget it. This is long, but oddly enough, it's the first time I've written about it.

I was still an undergraduate at the time (College Eight) and had moved to Santa Cruz from Michigan in 1987. I had already lived through another major natural disaster about five years earlier, which was in some ways even more terrifying, but at least when it was over, it was over--no aftershocks. But I had only experienced one earlier earthquake, not too long before, and was working in an office at Oakes College at the time. I was a bit freaked out at the filing cabinets moving around and whatnot, but my co-workers just laughed, because it turned out to be a very minor quake.

On the day of the big quake, I was supposed to meet a friend of mine downtown at the Cooper House at 5:00. I was running late and was still at home, at a house I shared with my boyfriend and three other housemates, located on River St. (Highway 9), on the banks of the San Lorenzo River, a couple miles or so north of downtown Santa Cruz, just before the road starts to climb up into the woods. I was just about to leave but was still in my bedroom, which had its own bathroom, and when the quake hit, I grabbed hold of the door jamb between the bathroom and the bedroom, holding on for dear life with an arm on each side, as I realized this was a major quake and watched EVERYTHING come down in the room--TV, stereo, and all the bookshelves. I climbed over the rubble, grabbed my purse and keys, and headed toward the living room to go out the front door. On my way out I noticed that the kitchen was a major mess, with cupboards open and broken glass and food items all over the floor. I quickly ran out into the driveway. I had thought I was the only one home at the time, but soon one of my housemates came running out. He had been in his upstairs bedroom. We stood out there and watched the house shake as an aftershock hit. As far as we could tell the exterior of the house was OK and none of the windows were broken, but neither one of us wanted to go back inside. He left on foot to a neighbor's house, I think, and I got in my car to drive downtown, worried about my friend.

When I told this story to friends later, they asked why on earth I would have done that. But you have to understand that I had no idea of the damage downtown--I was too far away to see it, and all the buildings around me were still standing and didn't appear to have outside damage. Since it was daylight, I hadn't even realized the power was out. As soon as I got to the huge intersection of Highway 1, Highway 17, and Highway 9 and saw the stoplight out, I got my first inkling. I continued down River Street and parked in the lot behind the Cooper House, and I walked through the alleyway and saw all the windows blown out, debris everywhere, and saw that no one was left in the building. I walked out onto Pacific Ave., which at that north end had been hit the hardest. At some point I think I probably went into a state of shock of some sort. It was an unbelievable scene: collapsed buildings, huge piles of rubble filling the street, every window in every building blown out, with people running and screaming, and cops, paramedics, and firefighters everywhere. As many people said later, it looked just like one of those disaster movies--almost surreal. I continued walking south on Pacific for a few more blocks, in a daze, until a cop starting yelling through a bullhorn for everyone to get off Pacific. So I walked a block west to Cedar St. and continued south toward my friend's house on Laurel St., hoping she would be home. She was, and she was sitting on her front porch with her housemates and some neighbors, listening to a battery-operated radio. Some of the houses in her neighborhood were on fire, due to a broken gas line, but luckily this didn't happen to her house.

Turns out she was running late too, and was still at home when the quake hit! I can't imagine what we would have experienced if we were inside the Cooper House then. I stayed there, on her front porch, for quite a while, trying to calm down. This was difficult, however, not only because of what I had seen downtown, but also the news coming over the radio--that there was major damage in San Francisco and that the Bay Bridge had collapsed (the latter was not true; only a section of the upper deck had fallen onto the lower deck). I was worried about my boyfriend and my other housemates, so eventually I got up the nerve to walk back to my car and drive home. My boyfriend and all my housemates came home that night, and all of them had been on campus or other parts of town that didn't have as much damage; I was the only one who had seen the extent of the devastation. We had no electricity, no gas, no water (all of which I believe lasted for a week or so), and could not get through on the phone (kept getting the "all circuits are busy" recording), and clearly no one could get through to us, as it never rang. At some point within a day or two, we were able to find a store with a generator where we could buy more bottled water, batteries, candles, etc., though we had to wait in a long line that ran all the way out the door.

Two or three days later, we were finally able to get through on the phone, sporadically. I was able to call my very worried parents, who live in Oregon. They had been watching various national news, and all that was televised were stories about San Francisco and Oakland--nothing at all about Santa Cruz, except for maps that showed that the epicenter was very close to me. They said they were thinking that Santa Cruz must be completely gone--that it had fallen into the ocean or something.

After about five days without utilities, getting very little sleep because of the numerous aftershocks, which often happened in the middle of the night (and with each one I would immediately get up and run out the door in terror), and the constant whir of the helicopters overhead, which I guess were there to film news stories and/or deliver supplies, I had had enough. My boyfriend suggested that we take refuge at his mother's house in San Francisco. This might seem strange, but she had a big house on top of a huge hill above the Haight, built on very solid bedrock. There was minimal damage there, and all her utilities were working. So we drove up various back roads and spent a few peaceful days there, without any aftershocks, even. But we were also able to watch the news there, and that's when we heard the horrible stories about all the people who died, in Santa Cruz and the Bay Area, and I was particularly sickened about the number of people who were killed or trapped on the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland.

We came back to Santa Cruz after our housemates told us that all the utilities were functioning again. But the aftershocks continued regularly, lasting for nearly a month, if I recall correctly. The scariest thing is that the news was telling us that there was about a 50% chance that any one of these could be at least as big as the original quake, or even bigger. We discovered a large crack running through the cement floor of our garage, and we wondered if it continued, underneath the carpets where we couldn't see it, through the rest of the ground floor (which included my bedroom). And the apartment building next door, just a few feet away from our house, had suffered major damage to the foundation and had to be evacuated and rebuilt.

A few months later, long after the aftershocks had stopped (and our landlady was able to assure us that we were in no danger from the crack in the garage), I had this sudden realization that I was no longer living in a perpetual state of fear, as I had been for at least a month after the big quake. I guess I had post-traumatic stress syndrome and didn't even realize it. Downtown Santa Cruz, however, which was then closed off with chain-link fences, with many razed buildings (including the historic and beautiful Cooper House, much to the dismay of many), and the tents set up nearby for the still-operating businesses, was a constantly sad reminder. I left Santa Cruz in 1993 to move to Seattle, but I visited numerous times later, most recently two or three years ago. I have to agree with many others that the new downtown mall just has no soul now--despite its shiny new buildings and numerous shoppers and pedestrians, it bears very little resemblance to the original, which was such a treasure.

For many years afterward, and to a lesser degree even today, I immediately jump when anything shakes, like when a large truck drives by and rattles the windows. When I moved to Seattle I thought that at last I was getting away from earthquakes. Surprise! Turns out this area is rife with them, and though they are less frequent than in California, the experts predict that we will have a HUGE one here--much bigger than the Loma Prieta quake--anytime within the next 30 years. And we did have a big one, a 6.8 (a little less than Loma Prieta's 7.1), and it lasted a whopping 40 seconds, much longer than Loma Prieta's 10 to 15 seconds. Luckily, it was centered very deep underground, so the damage was much less, much of it to the historic Pioneer Square at the south end of downtown, which is built on landfill and contains many old brick buildings. I lived and worked in a part of town with much more stable ground, but it was still terrifying, as I was working inside an old brick building when it hit, with all 60 employees stampeding down a three-story stairwell, and I came home to an apartment where once again, everything had toppled over. It was another sobering reminder. And we have the infamous Alaskan Way Viaduct here, a double-decker elevated section of Highway 99, running along the downtown waterfront. It shares some frightening things in common with the Cypress Street Viaduct on the Nimitz Freeway, which collapsed in the Loma Prieta quake: It was also built in the 1950s, it also sits on unstable ground, and it has a very similar design. The city of Seattle has known for many years that the Viaduct will not survive a major earthquake (it was damaged in the 2001 quake here), but still the politicians continue to argue about possible solutions and nothing has been done about it. I refuse to drive on it.

I'm amazed that some people found the 1989 quake sort of fun, but I guess it depends on where you were and what you witnessed when it occurred. It was a truly awful experience for me, definitely one of the worst times of my life. I can think of only several things that happened then that were positive in any way. My housemates and I developed more camaraderie, as we had to suffer through our situation together and do the best we could, and the only thing there was to do in the evenings was sit around and talk by candlelight. Also, an "earthquake kitty" appeared on our doorstep, the morning after the quake, I believe. He was absolutely adorable, just a kitten, with long black hair. We assumed he must have gotten lost from his home during the quake, but he had no collar and he wouldn't go away, day after day. We didn't want to let him in because we already had a cat, but of course we had to take pity on him and give him food and water. After a few days of this, his heartbreaking little meows became too much, and we took him in. My boyfriend developed a particularly close bond with him and named him "Bob"; he turned out to be a wonderful cat, and our other cat eventually learned to tolerate him. Finally, I had a memorable experience a few days after the quake at a store, waiting in line to purchase some Duraflame logs (since we had no heat, I figured I could at least run the fireplace in my bedroom). The people in line near me all looked at me with astonishment, and one of them asked, "You still have a FIREPLACE?" Nearly all the fireplaces in town were brick, you see, and all of those had collapsed in the quake. I explained that my fireplace was metal, and everybody chuckled. It was a perversely humorous moment.

College Eight

In 1989 I was working for SCO, my first software industry job after getting my CS degree from UCSC. At 5:04pm I was in the 2nd floor bathroom of the brand new 425 Encinal building preparing to change clothes before taking off for a 5:30pm African dance class. As the quake hit, I ran to the bathroom doorframe and held on for dear life. It felt like the quake went on forever, with everything happening as if in a slow-motion dream: the bathroom door crashing into me as it swung open & closed, the suspended ceiling panels falling in, fire extinguishers bouncing out of their wall alcoves onto the floor. I still remember the background roar and an overwhelming feeling that I was all alone and maybe going to die. When the shaking stopped, I ran out of the building, meeting up with others in the back parking lot who had ridden out the quake indoors. Thank goodness the temblor hadn't happened 30 seconds later -- I would've been midway through my clothes change and would've given my coworkers quite a show!

That evening my housemate & I walked around the west side checking on friends and surveying the damage. Some distinct memories: a woman on a bike hit by a car in the frantic traffic mess, eating ice cream chased with vodka from a friend's defrosting freezer, our very uptight neighbor sitting out on her front lawn swigging jug wine straight from the bottle, a dark deserted Mission Street with broken plate glass all over the sidewalk, the overwhelming smell of alcohol rolling out of Z's from all the broken liquor bottles.

The coolest story I heard about the earthquake was from some people who were in the butterfly eucalyptus grove at Natural Bridges when the quake hit -- their memory of the quake is the beauty of thousands of monarchs instantaneously taking flight.

Porter College

I was in Classroom Unit 2, and a sophomore in Education for a Livable World with Professor David Swanger.

I was sitting next to Tim McDermott in the front row and when the quake hit, we dove under the bolted-down tables just in front of us. It was sure a lot safer than those theater seats and fold-out writing surfaces that our friends Yonga and Ted had just a few rows behind us. I believe Yonga was asleep until the quake hit! Talk about a rude awakening...

After the first major shakes passed, a few students followed Professor Swanger out to the quarry. He tried to continue the lecture, but with the first aftershock, he ended class and let us go.

Tim wondered if the epicenter was in LA, and I didn't want to think about an earthquake *that* big.

We all walked back to Porter college, where we made the best of a scary situation. I believe that night we could have slept in our dorm rooms, but most of us slept out in the fields behind the dorms.

Kresge College

I was working on the 31st floor of the 101 California Bldg in downtown Santa Cruz when the earthquake hit. My girlfriend and I both worked for Russian stock marketers, and they had called us in to work their phones that afternoon. We had just caught a bus, and a cable car, took the elevator up to the 31st floor, sat down to make our first calls when the quake hit.

We had just moved to California from Maryland and this was our 2nd earthquake. That high up, we heard the earthquake before we felt it. You could hear a low rumbling that got louder and louder. When the first wave hit, it caused the building to start shifting to one direction. The scary part was that it didn't shake, and the floor just kept moving to one direction. Then it began to tilt, and I thought maybe that was it. I later found out that this newer building had flexible girders built into the structure, and this caused the building to move and "flex". Once the quake waves hit the roof and began reverberating back, along with more waves coming up the building, the building started to shift and tilt around randomly for a while. I described it as feeling like an ant on a blade of grass on a windy day.

I vividly remember we all started looking over at the Bay Bridge, even though we couldn't see the damage.

The funny story was that one of the stockbrokers was still selling to a customer over the phone during this whole event. We later found out he had never been in a quake, and thought we were playing some sort of joke on him.

Both my girlfriend and I eventually took the 31 flights of stairs down and headed towards Union Square. We found one store open, a Chinese grocery that had one of those old mechanical cash registers (and a candle lighting the place).

Unfortunately, my girlfriend and I got into an argument after this. I cannot remember what about, but she stormed off and I did as well. The rest of the night involved me finding my way back to Western Edition where we lived, and worrying about the fact I just left my girlfriend in downtown SF to fend for herself in a blackout.

I caught a bus downtown that was my bus to Western Edition, but the bus driver told me he was just driving wherever he could get. It turned out the bus had just come from Candlestick, and it was full of people who had been at the World Series game. The bus ended up driving down to Lombard Street where we ended up in an endless traffic jam in the Marina.

I got off the bus and headed toward Van Ness Avenue. I remember being amazed that the city was in a blackout. There was a lady walking down Van Ness with a candle to guide her, I remember seeing tour buses just driving around aimlessly. Eventually I found my way to a friend's house on Van Ness, and then caught the Fulton bus towards my apartment. The scary thing was the bus driver stopped the bus halfway there, in a bad neighborhood, and said we wasn't driving any further because of rioting. I left the bus and jogged around the bad neighborhood all the way to our apartment.

I ended up getting home at 4am after a very long journey, only to find out that my girlfriend had made it home in a couple of hours!

Because of this event, I decided I wanted to understand earthquakes more. I came to UCSC as an Earth Sciences major and graduated with an Earth Sciences degree in 2001.

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