Twenty years ago today, a senior in high school, I was about to quit my first retail job at the bargain store outlet in Downtown Santa Cruz, where I was spending money faster than making it. Aside from the closet full of cheep, ill-fitting clothes, by mid-October the job was interfering with my GPA, and it seemed best to ditch it. Even still, at 5 p.m., I had a few more fanny packs to hang before giving my resignation, and, while I had little intention of returning, I wanted to leave a good last impression.
5:04, and the ground began to shake.
A California girl, I found earthquakes exhilarating, and, for the first few seconds, I was along for the ride. By the fourth and fifth seconds, I started to wonder if this was “The Big One,” the one we’d prepared for, having spent our childhoods ducking and covering. Then, with a crack and a jolt, the ground really got rolling. Going into survival mode, I found myself as if in a bubble, no longer hearing the sounds that people later described as deafening. The lights went out, and the security mirrors strategically placed on the ceilings began crashing down around us.
I watched as my friend Rosie flew around on the floor, her hands and knees spinning so fast she didn’t appear to touch the ground. (She later told us that it was the women screaming frantically in Spanish for their babies that had sent her into such a panic.) My eyes locked with those of my other friend Leigh’s, who’d been stationed in the dressing room, and we both met mid-floor and scooped Rosie up, dragging her to the supply room door, the only structural door in the entire building.
Fifteen seconds later, surrounded by two walls of windows and mirrored ceilings, we were swimming in a sea of broken glass and crumpled garments and plotting our escape. The tremor stopped, and as we watched others leave the building, a second, seemingly stronger quake shook us as we stood huddled in our doorway wrapped in each other’s arms. The matronly owner of the store, previously too good for us working girls, suddenly wedged her way between us and sobbed in our arms as the earth continued to tremble. When it finally let up, we figured we should make a break for it, ran to the front of the store, and stepped out of the steel framed windows.
Leaving the store, the once ordered street was filled with ash and brick, and huge plumes of concrete dust billowed around us. We watched as teenage boys ran into the store across from ours, yelling that they needed help retrieving the body of a deceased woman.
I approached a fireman, who was walking toward us screaming for everyone to “go home!” I asked him about the condition of the rest of the town. Was it better or worse than where we currently were? Was it even safe to go home? For the first time I witnessed a rescue worker as a fellow victim in an emergency. This particular one was not handling it well. He looked at me, eyes bulging and resumed screaming to anyone who would listen: “Everyone Get Out Of Here! Everyone Fucking Go Home!!!”
In the adjoining parking lot, we found our coworkers. Nobody knew what to do. Our lockers had fallen over in the break room and nobody was crazy enough to go back into the building to try and retrieve our belongings. Although I was the youngest one there, I found a piece of paper and pen and made everyone write their names and addresses on torn scraps of paper. That way, if something happened to them on their way home, they’d at least have identification. They all looked at me glassy-eyed and complied, then headed for their various homes.
I wandered to the edge of the lot, still unaware of the condition of the rest of the town. As it turned out, I was only miles from the epicenter of the Loma Prieta, and the Pacific Garden Mall in Downtown Santa Cruz was the hardest hit section of town. (Parts of San Francisco, though farther away, and Watsonville were hit even harder than us.) It had been built over a river bed, and the ground below us was simply sand. The Good Times building next to ours was later condemned, and we were told that, if the shaking had gone on any longer, it would have collapsed onto our roof.
Ultimately, I decided that if I stayed put, my mom would could come and find me. At the time, she was across town on the West Side, which was built on a granite shelf. A few pictures had shifted on the walls, and she’d certainly felt it shake, but the houses weren’t crashing down around her, so, at first, she wasn’t too concerned about me. After an hour, when I still hadn’t returned, she realized she’d better come looking for me.
It took her another hour to get across town, meeting detours every other street. She spoke to people along the way, saying that she had to get to her daughter downtown. It was only after several people offered to pray for me that she began to be aware of the grave conditions we’d been under.
Meanwhile, I waited. I watched as guys on skateboards made their way to the mall, determined to enter the rubble and deem themselves hero’s. At about 6 p.m., the adrenalin had begun to wear off, and I found myself cold and alone as it began to get dark, my blood sugar bottoming out. Out of nowhere, a young Brazilian man positioned himself at my feet. “Are you OK? Are you alone? Are you hurt?”
He could see that I was in shock, and ran to the restaurant across the street and gathered together a loaf of bread and a bunch of banana’s that he brought back to me. He was trained in applied kinesiology, and while I ate, he worked on my pressure points to relieve some of the stress I was feeling.
Then, as if the sky had parted, I watched as my mom walked toward me.
I flew into her arms.
In the weeks following, we had many aftershocks, often powerful, and always inspiring panic. This time passed as in a dream. We didn’t have school for a couple of weeks and, even when it resumed, attendance was lax. Most of us, scared to sleep inside, spent our nights with our friends, huddled around bonfires on the beach.
There seemed to be a huge divide as to how we’d all been affected. In art class, I sat across from a boy who’d been surfing when the earthquake hit. He found it wildly amusing to send me into a panic by shaking the table. Only now that I have two mischievous little boys, have I found forgiveness for him.
At the time, having been in a building that had literally come down around me, I was going through post-traumatic stress. Leigh, who’d shared the doorway with me, was suffering even more. She’d been born in Vietnam during the war, and even more than the continuous tremors, was suffering from the constant din of helicopters that hovered overhead.
My mom knew I was struggling. I denied it.
Finally, just before Thanksgiving, we were hit by a giant wind storm. The windows rattled and shook violently, and I went into hysterics. Suddenly the sounds that I’d blocked out during the quake came flooding back to me, and I ran around the house screaming, “we’re all going to die!”
I finally collapsed onto my mom’s bed and sobbed.
It took years before I could tell people my story without shutting down before I could finish.
Now, 20 years later, I can look back on it all as a distant memory, an experience tucked away in my youth. However, I no longer enjoy earthquakes and, to this day, the littlest tremors still take my breath away.