DISCLAIMER: I only acknowledge a few Boardwalk employees who responded to the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989. We are grateful to many other unsung employees who worked tirelessly that evening at the expense of tending to their own families.
October 17, 1989, 5:04pm. Everyone who lived in Santa Cruz County thirty years ago, remembers exactly where they were at this moment in time. The Bay Bridge World Series between the SF Giants and Oakland A’s had set the San Francisco Bay Area abuzz. Like many locals, Boardwalk employees scurried home to watch Game 3. Some of us were still finishing up our day before heading out.
The 6.9 Loma Prieta Earthquake set in motion a sequence of unprecedented events at the Boardwalk that night.
I was in my office, talking with my wife on the phone, planning our evening. I remember the quake’s initial vibration felt unremarkable, like an outbound freight train traveling slowly past the Boardwalk. Suddenly a jolt like nothing I had experienced – before or since – caused my desk to jump, bookcases to fall and telephone to go dead. Once the main thrust ebbed, I made my way out into the hallway in a daze, to join other escaping employees.
A fog of dust and ceiling particles enshrouded the hallway. Pictures had fallen off the wall. Antique arcade machines lay on their sides. Some had to be moved to clear an exit path. We yelled out as we checked offices along our way to the street, concerned that no possibly-injured employee be left behind. Thankfully, everyone was safe. I joined a group of stunned co-workers along the railroad tracks. That’s when I remember seeing the dust cloud north of Beach Hill, eerily lit in an orange hue. It was my first hint of downtown devastation. Soon after that, someone remarked, “The downtown is gone!”
The quake brought Seaside Company President Charles Canfield’s business meeting to a jarring halt. As Charles scanned the beach from his scenic corner office, he first saw dust rising from the cliff above the San Lorenzo River. He strained to see the company’s Sea & Sand Inn on the bluff above Cowell’s Beach, and was relieved it was still there. A plume of cement dust rising from the Boardwalk’s beach bandstand drew his attention, it drooped on one side, several support columns punched through the stage. Gondolas on the Sky Glider ride swung, pinwheel-like, in a 180-degree arc before a cable jumped off its guide wheels.
Charles’ meeting attendees ducked under a heavy conference table. A secretary in an outer office took cover under her desk. Once the main shock passed, they came out from under cover to see Charles sitting and holding a favorite historical heirloom. He had saved a glass, 1906 Santa Cruz Brewing Company emblem from a crashing demise. Local architect Bill Bagnall, slowly rose from his crouched position under the table. He had just safely ridden out the quake in a building he had designed. Everyone headed outside to gather with other staff in the eerily still, warm evening.
Tish Denevan, a sales manager at the Seaside Company’s Casa Del Rey Retirement Hotel, had exited the hotel’s back door on her way home when swaying light poles, undulating pavement and the building’s creaking foundation revealed the earthquake’s intensity. Heading back into the building, past the kitchen where the evening meal spread over the floor, she relied on her earthquake preparedness planning and took action.
A retirement hotel since 1960, elderly residents had just sat down for their 5pm dinner. The 20-second quake shook many residents off their chairs and onto the dining room floor. Tish, Dianna Ligon and hotel staff assisted residents and coworkers and began escorting everyone out of the building. That most residents had made their way down to dinner fortuitously aided a timely evacuation of the building. Room checks by security officers followed, and other guests were assisted out. The adjacent Boardwalk parking lot become the place to gather evacuees, safely away from any more falling debris.
As residents gathered together, eking out some consolation from each other’s presence, other Seaside Company staffers who came to assist, started welfare checks. One employee who lived nearby, ditched out of his own disheveled home to come back to work. He, along with on-duty security staff and one or two others, entered the structurally-damaged building, still shaking from strong aftershocks. They lobbed mattresses, blankets, and other items out the windows for use at the gathering spot and then carried chairs and tables to the parking lot. They later raided jackets and other uniform items from the Boardwalk’s Wardrobe Department for the displaced residents. The hotel’s front desk person jotted down residents’ essential medications and ducked back into the building to retrieve them. Salvaged foodstuffs from the hotel’s kitchen, in the helping hands of the Cocoanut Grove’s chef, became a simple outdoor dinner for residents.
Once a census of all 147 hotel occupants was completed, Tish, with the aid of a bullhorn proclaimed, “I am pleased to announce that everyone is accounted for and has made it safely out of the building.” A cheer erupted from residents and employees as they continued to acclimate to their open-air habitation.
Architect Bill Bagnall did a quick interior structural assessment of the hotel to reveal significant damage throughout and especially at the northeast corner. The floor had separated from the wall, eerily revealing space below. The south section of the building appeared generally undamaged. Later in the evening, some seniors bunked out on mattresses in a hallway. Bagnall hurriedly inspected the Boardwalk’s more massive Casino and Plunge buildings to find their structural underpinnings generally intact.
Carl Arnett, our former Technical Services Director, was headed back to the Boardwalk after having completed an errand. Sitting at a traffic light on the Soquel Avenue bridge, his vehicle began to shake. While inching it off the bridge, he saw a cloud of dust and billowing smoke rise over downtown Santa Cruz. Earthquake! He recognized the seriousness of the temblor as he returned to the Boardwalk, passing collapsing building facades on Front Street.
Arriving from downtown, Arnett saw some exterior damage to Boardwalk buildings and clusters of bewildered employees and hotel residents. Quickly sizing up the emergency, Carl dashed home to get his bobtail truck, already loaded with catering equipment for a side venture. He managed to hustle back over the Riverside Avenue bridge just ahead of its closure for safety reasons.
Within several hours, Carl and a helper had a command post set up just west of the entrance to the Boardwalk’s main parking lot. WIth his background in technical services, he knew exactly how the Boardwalk worked from the inside out. He hooked his generators to overhead parking lot lights to illuminate the advancing long night. He patched into the company’s telephone system and rigged up a telephone circuit at the command station. By 9pm, clear phone communication had been re-established – one line for incoming calls and the other for outgoing. The bank of two-way radios he provided enabled our staff to communicate. His cooking appliances got coffee brewing and hot chocolate warmed as residents of the Casa Del Rey settled into their outside encampment. He even brought a porta-potty that we screened off for a modicum of privacy, a welcomed addition to the makeshift arrangement Seaside staff hastily installed earlier.
Fairly soon after the quake struck, a lone Santa Cruz police officer came by in his patrol car to survey its effects on the Boardwalk. Seeing seniors being cared for, lights over the parking lot and maintenance staff cordoning off damaged building sections, he commented, “It looks like you know what you are doing! You are on your own!”
I recall a small, portable TV appeared at some point. News coverage revealed images of the full extent of the earthquake’s havoc throughout the San Francisco Bay Region. It was hard to comprehend pictures of the shattered East Bay elevated freeway, the collapse of one section of the San Francisco Bay Bridge, destruction and fires in the Marina District and dazed players and spectators at Candlestick Park. The first images of the devastation in downtown Santa Cruz were especially challenging to assimilate.
Over at the Boardwalk, some maintenance staff surveyed the damaged street-side entrance to the miniature golf course in the old Plunge building. It had separated from the main building. The area in front was quickly taped off to save injury should that structure collapse. Several employees also cordoned off the area around the stricken bandstand. They then set about shutting off main valves at natural gas meters to pre-empt any fiery explosions.
Other staff members focused on a torrent of water coming out of the Casino Arcade building just west of its street-side entrance. Tracing it back, they found the source, a break in the pressurized fire line in the attic above the Cocoanut Grove’s ballroom. Within a few hours, resolute maintenance workers had the water shut off. However, the gusher had drenched the Cocoanut Grove’s ballroom floor and seeped into the Bay View Room and its cocktail lounge. The Casino Arcade below was water-logged as well.
Since electrical power had failed, the approaching darkness allowed only a cursory exploration of other Boardwalk facilities. As night descended upon the beach area, Seaside Company staff became wholly focused on the hotel residents. Four employees stayed throughout the night, conducting 20-minute safety and welfare checks of the huddled seniors. Thankfully no one was seriously hurt, although several were taken to the hospital as a result of stress and heart conditions.
My account of October 17, 1989 falls short in heralding the dedicated and selfless assistance provided by individual Seaside Company staff members as they responded to the earthquake’s devastation.
In another blog, I’ll describe our response as morning dawned to reveal the extent of the quake’s damage to the Boardwalk. I’ll tell of our efforts to relocate Casa Del Rey residents and the frenzy of repairs that enabled the Boardwalk to partially re-open in early November.
What significant memory stands out in your mind of that fateful night?
-till next time –