The following story is from Tom McDonald-Sawyer, who explains that it is “a letter I wrote to family and friends back home in Maine of my earthquake experience. On the first anniversary of the quake, the Santa Cruz Sentinel asked for people’s stories so I sent it in. For the week leading up to the actual anniversary date 10/17/1990, they printed pages of what folks sent in. I kept looking for my story. . . . On the anniversary day itself, I opened up the paper and found my picture and my story took up the whole page.”
Here it is:
Tuesday, October 17, 1989:
I got out of work at 5:00 P.M. as usual. I ran down to the bus stop to catch a ride in to the downtown Santa Cruz Metro Center. There, I could get a bus to take me to Cabrillo College in Aptos. I had a class at 7:00.
An elderly man was waiting on the bench much as he does every day. I sat down on the opposite end and bent over my wallet to take out my bus pass. It was at that moment while looking downward that I felt the Earth rumble through my feet. I thought a large truck was passing by. I looked up as I put my pass in my shirt pocket. There was no truck in sight. A sharper shock jolted me to my feet. I spun around and grabbed the bench to keep from being thrown to the ground. A deafening roar assaulted my ears.
The intensity didn’t diminish. I turned my head from side to side ready to jump out of the way of anything that might fall on me from above. The trees and the telephone pole next to the bench were doing a frantic dervish dance. A small blue house twelve feet from me was jiggling like a plate of Jell-O that’s been brusquely set on a table.
Directly in front of me was the parking lot to a Christian elementary school. There were three cars in it. Little four to six inch ripples were scurrying towards me in the asphalt. They were making the cars rock so violently I expected to see them leap into the air.
I couldn’t stop looking at them. A terrorizing moment of madness swept my mind. I said to myself, “This is it. This is the big one!” I fully expected to see the earth in front of me open up and swallow me whole.
They say it lasted about 15 seconds. It felt like an hour but it did finally stop.
I looked over at the old man. He was sitting perfectly still, staring directly in front of himself. I started telling him what I had seen. He told me how the power lines had whipped around and around as the poles dipped back and forth. A man about my age went by in a 4-wheel drive and let out a big whoop. I answered back a shrill release of my own.
The bus cruised to a stop in front of us. The door opened and the driver smiled out, “You’re still alive!” The older man hurried onto the bus. My legs were like rubber. It felt like the Earth wasn’t a solid mass beneath me.
The driver expressed concern about driving on the overpass that took us across Highway 17. We made it all right. Everyone that we stopped to pick up had wide open eyes. Some were totally silent while others related briefly an impression of their experience.
There was a large cloud of dust billowing eastward. I kept looking for its source. Spotting it I pointed and spoke out loud, “The dust is coming from those sand cliffs. A big chunk broke off.” Then, “The overhead door in that garage fell.” The driver mentioned his radio was out.
Not much was said after that. There didn’t appear to be a lot of damage in Scotts Valley. There was an ambulance at the Safeway supermarket. The EMT was reassuring someone lying on the sidewalk. Everything was quiet.
As we rolled down Graham Hill Road to Santa Cruz it became evident that a lot of people had lost their brick chimneys. We passed one man standing beneath the cliff his house sat upon, holding a big chunk of what was left of his.
We reached Ocean Street, which is what Highway 17 turns into to make its way to the beach. As we turned right, the full magnitude of the quake was made clear.
Every plate glass window in the abandoned shoe store was shattered. Winchell’s Donuts’ roof had collapsed and its windows broken. Hardly a building on that side of the street was left untouched. I couldn’t tell if SuperAuto’s roof had collapsed. There was too much debris. A young man came out of the parking lot, blood on his hand and shirt.
The bus turned right on Water Street. Slowed by traffic, we crept onto the bridge spanning the San Lorenzo River. We stopped as the bus driver exclaimed, “Look at those cracks! I don’t know if this is safe.” But traffic was all around us, albeit at a snail’s pace. We had naught but to go on.
Slowly turning left at Front Street everyone stared in deepening horror at what up to 20 minutes before had been the Santa Cruz Roasting Company. A policeman moved bricks and masonry from where the front door had stood. Some days later rescue teams pulled the body of a 25-year-old woman employee from the rubble. She had died instantly.
Buildings were in various stages of crumbling. Cracks and broken glass everywhere. A 4×2 ft. chunk of ornamental facia lay embedded in the sidewalk right in front of a boutique’s door.
Civilians were directing traffic. The power was out. A handful of people were walking around. Hardly a car could be found in any parking lot.
We stopped at an intersection. A lady ran over and beat on the bus’ door. The driver told her to stand back and he’d open them. She jumped in trembling. She said she didn’t have the change for the fare but she needed to get home. She had two children there alone. She asked if the buses were running. Her voice cracked holding back the panic-driven tears. He told her he was going to the Metro Center but didn’t know anything beyond that.
The Metro Center was jammed full of buses. The doors opened into a dead silence as we slowly filed out. There was a horde of people about. Most were just sitting. Some walked around. They didn’t seem to know where they were going. Oppressive silence.
I would have to find my own way home but first I went off in search of a phone. Anxiety threatened to overwhelm me. Where was my family? Were they all right? What shape was our house in? I had to find out.
I walked to the Pacific Garden Mall side of the Metro. I looked down the street where I knew a pay phone was. My eyes were drawn instead to collapsed buildings. Massive sections of them were strewn over the streets. Someone’s desk in a second-story office was clearly visible.
A policeman taped off the area while telling everyone to disperse. I headed in the opposite direction. I fell into conversation with a black gentleman walking beside me at the same hurried pace, relating what each had seen.
I tried the first phone I came to. Dead. I turned to him and saw over his shoulder a thick column of black smoke reaching skyward. I said, “I gotta get home.”
Retracing my steps I went back through the buses and headed down Front Street to the Soquel Ave. bridge. The furniture store’s roof had collapsed. The next store had a broken water pipe that gushed water.
I fought back tears, gritted my teeth and picked my way through the glass-blanketed sidewalk. A policeman blocked the bridge with his cruiser and laid flares next to it.
I told myself that it was strong enough for foot traffic but was ready to hurl myself over the side if it should let loose. One lane was almost two inches above the other.
The water main had broken, flooding the intersection at the other end of the bridge. I stood there a moment to see how best to get across. A policewoman laid flares in front of her cruiser.
I heard shouts. “Fight! Two guys are fighting over here!” A man in a VW van yelled obscenities at some guy. He jumped on the accelerator and rammed the car in front of him. Then he whipped it in reverse and rammed the Porsche behind him. The policewoman ran towards him, fumbling with her holster snap. He smashed it into gear and lurched forward again. Her gun came free as she assumed the stance and yelled, “Hold it right there!” He stopped and raised his arms above his head quickly, “All right! All right!”
Two leaps got me through the water without getting too wet. I was outta there and taking ten strides up Soquel Ave. Again I fought down tears, telling myself, “Not now! I’ve got to get home. I’ve got to deal with this.” I tried grounding myself but couldn’t visualize the center of the Earth.
I crossed Ocean Street. Damage seemed to be lighter. Individuals swept up the glass in front of their businesses. Traffic progressively backed up to a complete stop. A car pulled over and a man with a camera jumped out looking for something to take a picture of.
A wave of anger swept over me. “The Mall looks like a bomb went off!,” my mind screamed at him. “There’s probably dead people down there! Is that all you can do is take pictures!” Where was my family?! Were they all right?! Again I fought down tears.
I reached the Morrissey Blvd. intersection. There’s a Taco Bell there. It was in some disarray and had broken glass. I noted spots of blood on the sidewalk coming from the building. I followed them down the block to Frederick Street. I was surprised they didn’t turn right to go to Community Hospital a couple hundred yards down the road. Instead they continued straight. At a spot where there is a low fence, and you can see the hospital, the red spots veered off.
I went about fifty yards more when I heard a car horn blow. I turned to look. It was my friend Steve Hanlon, whom I’d worked with making candy at Harmony Foods.
I literally jumped into his car. He wrestled with his baby’s car seat while I crammed my pack in and tried to close the door. He’d been at work. His daughter was being baby-sat by a friend and he felt pretty sure she was all right. I told him to go to check on her first, but he reiterated he felt she was o.k., so he’d take me home. We related to each other our experiences as we drove on.
Steve turned up the driveway. Maureen’s car was parked at the neighbor’s house. Jason, Zandra, Maureen, our neighbor, her eight-year-old daughter and three-week-old son were all standing around it. I told Steve to stop, my family was here. I tried but couldn’t fully express my thanks for bringing me home.
Maureen was just about to take Zandra and go looking for me. I told her that would’ve been foolhardy because she had no idea where I’d be. I then told them about the scene in Santa Cruz.
Maureen had been taking Zandra to the high school for swim practice. She thought she’d gotten a flat because of the way the car started acting. (The most common response by people driving when it hit.)
Zandra pointed out the trees were all swaying violently. By the time she stopped the car and got out, it had jiggled to a stop. She continued up the hill to the school.
Jason had stayed after school to make up a phys. ed. test he’d previously missed. He was outside when it hit and was thrown to the ground, tearing his pants and skinning his knee.
There were a number of parents and their children around because of the sports programs. The children who were in the swimming pool were heavily thrashed by the erupting wave action. No one was seriously hurt but hysteria threatened everyone’s sensibilities.
The wide-open campus felt like a safe place to ride out the inevitable aftershocks. They stayed there for an hour or so. Then Maureen flashed on our house and knew the water and gas had to be shut off.
She saw a waterfall cascading from the wall at the top of the garage door as she pulled up. She went upstairs and was just about to step into two inches of water which covered the bathroom floor, when her eye caught sight of a plugged in hair dryer and radio lying in the water. She told Jason to get the neighbor from the other side of the driveway to come shut off our propane and water.
He came on the run and made short work of it. Maureen and the kids got to work on drying the bathroom. The garage directly below had been converted into Maureen’s office and our bedroom. It was drowned right around the bed. The rest was dry but in severe disarray as was the rest of the house. Then they went back down to Deerfrance’s.
After I arrived we quickly decided to get our camping gear, food and supplies, and set up a bivouac on the flat sandy area we were standing on. I took the kids back up the hill with me to help. We had a nasty shaker while in the darkened wreck of the house and bolted outdoors. Zandra was white as a ghost and shaking. I comforted her and told her to sit in the car. She had retrieved her teddy bear and her reggae music.
Jason and I continued the gather. I drove down the hill. A mutual friend, Eric, was there talking with the women. He is a very grounded, warm, and caring person. He gave great emotional support and physical help.
Eric, Jason and I went up to the house for a few more things and decided it would be best to rip up the saturated portion of the upstairs rug and throw the foam backing outside. We needed to get the floor dry as soon as possible to prevent costly repairs to the house.
There were more temblors while we were upstairs, urging us to be expedient. We did what we could and then set off to erect our tents.
We started a campfire and ate a small meal. We turned on the radio to find out what was going on. We found a station transmitting the emergency broadcast system. This was not a test. The news was very disturbing. We heard hundreds died on the Bay Bridge. We couldn’t take it for long before we had to shut it off. It was serving to magnify our fears. “Expect to survive on your own for the next three days. All emergency services are busy.”
Sleep was an intermittent void broken by strong aftershocks. We clung to each other for security and there was none.
The sun rose and we slowly, stiffly, one by one climbed out of the tents. Again we tried listening to the radio. It was still bad but our fears lost some of their edge in the light of day.
It was difficult to think, a very lethargic breakfast. I looked beyond our house and knew the top of the ridge had slid into the middle terrace. It had originally been created as a building site. The county didn’t allow it. They’d said it was geologically unsound. For once they were right.
Eric and I took the three kids and set about putting the living areas in our house back in order. Almost everything that had hung on the walls was now on the floor. Most of that was broken glass. The kids were a great help.
Later Eric went back in town to his house to check on things. Maureen, Zandra and I went to Safeway to get drinking water. Then they left me to stand in line while they went to look in on an old couple we know.
Really, there weren’t many people out and about. Everything was very quiet and subdued. It served to accentuate the heavy thupping of the helicopters flying overhead. They were dumping ocean water on a big fire that had been started by downed power lines in Nisene Marks Park, not far from the center of town.
No one was actually allowed in the store. You stood there, told them what you wanted while employees scurried around the store busily replenishing the essentials that were piled around the check stands by the door. They were out of water, ice, and the size batteries I wanted. I got a case of 7UP and AAs, hoping we had a radio that could use them should the other one give out.
The overall silence and lack of movement on the road was the physical manifestation of everyone holding their breath. Shock on a massive scale. It was easy to get disoriented and lose your train of thought. It was a constant fight to overcome inertia. There was so much work to do and no desire to even begin. I just kept wanting to sit down and do nothing.
Eric came back that evening and the kids got us involved in playing a word game around the campfire. Then Eric told a story. With determination we went to bed. We were jolted awake three times that night. One turned out to be 5.0 and centered in Watsonville five miles south of our house.
Eric left again the next day. Emotions were raw and tempers short. My kidneys hurt for a week from the adrenaline strain. I pushed myself up to the house to continue the cleaning. P.G.&E had restored our power a little after eight the night before.
I checked out the furnace and started it in hopes of aiding the drying process upstairs. The sun was blazing. Temperatures rose to the mid 80s for two days. We jumped in the frigid swimming pool for relief and to feel a little cleaner.
The water was restored about sixteen hours after the electricity but it was over a week before we were assured it was safe to drink.
We set up the barbecues so Maureen could cook some chicken and hamburger that had unthawed in the freezer. Being a vegetarian of sorts, I relied on many PB & J sandwiches to curb my hunger.
The weatherman told us rain was on the way. On the fourth day I concentrated on breaking camp and moving back into the house. Everyone was still very concerned about safety but no one wanted to get wet. We all slept on the first floor away from sliding glass doors and windows.
We had a monsoon for the next two days. It caused a number of landslides around the county. The five inches that had gotten blown out of the swimming pool was completely replaced. Being confined indoors did nothing for our frayed nerves and emotions.
The first reports of the quake we heard had the center located in two spots. One was in Davenport about 10 miles north of Santa Cruz on the coast. The other was in Hollister approximately 25-30 miles SW of Santa Cruz. They said its strength was 7.0. The conjecture went on for several days. Finally the myriad of geological experts agreed on the Nisene Marks Park location, four miles from our house as the bird flies. Roughly I’d guess this to be about half way between the two original co-epicenters. The strength was lowered to 6.9 but later raised to 7.1.
Our housemates Faye and Tom were in Oregon on vacation. They went through their own hell trying to get news of their kids, who were here staying with friends, and Faye’s mom. The Highway Patrol told them not to even try to get back, but they did.
The authorities evacuated the low-lying areas of Capitola on the day after the quake, expecting a tsunami. Our friend Loretta and her kids live in that zone. They were allowed to return the following day.
Everyone has a story to tell of that day. Stories of survival and reactions to the world falling apart before their eyes. Even a month after that incredible natural occurrence when people met who hadn’t seen each other since, they’d say, “It’s good to see you. How did you do in the quake?”
It wasn’t until a couple weekends after the quake that I climbed around the slide on the hill. I found a second crack that runs the length of our property line, the people’s next door, and stops at the third home. It varies from 1\4 inch to 1 1\2 feet wide and to 3 feet deep.
I’ve knocked the sides in onto itself in an effort to prevent rain from greasing the severed land and causing a mudslide. The crack is too extensive to fill in completely. I’d have to remove a lot of scrub brush to get at parts of it. There’s a second terrace on the foot of the hill so we’re not worried about there being any danger to the house.
Things are pretty much back to normal now. I’m glad none of you experienced it. I hope you never do.
By Tom McDonald-Sawyer