The shaking hadn’t even stopped when instinct and adrenaline took over. Chip Scheuer did what he always did when things went horribly wrong: He grabbed his camera and took pictures.
It was already a gloomy day. The news photographer was sitting in his ex-girlfriend’s home in Santa Cruz, trying to persuade her to take him back. That’s when the ground began to convulse and rage.
“She said I was running away as the ground was still shaking,” said Scheuer, standing on Santa Cruz’s Pacific Garden Mall, fiddling with the Nikon dangling from his neck.
That day, Scheuer chased the signs of the Loma Prieta Earthquake’s swath of destruction, the billowing smoke wandering skyward, the sirens. A trio of firefighters watched as a house burned, lacking the required manpower to even make an attempt to put it out. Scheuer snapped a few pictures. An exhausted firefighter. A tenant running from the flames.
Scheuer moved onto Pacific Avenue, a bohemian enclave of Victorian coffee shops and stores where he spent his free time. The damage was everywhere. He described the scene with a familiar mantra: “It looked like a drunken Godzilla had gone stomping downtown.” He wandered past the collapsed wall of Ford’s Department store, into the interior where emergency workers were searching for bodies. The camera’s shutter clicked, swallowing images of heartbreak and destruction.
“The bricks were falling off the wall,” Scheuer said. “They sounded like wind chimes. When I hear wind chimes today I still cringe.”
Unlike other news assignments, this disaster was personal to Scheuer. The cafes where he’d gather with other photographers to talk shop were now heaps of rubble. His home was gone too.
“I was living in a hotel right across the street,” he said pointing to a newer building on Pacific Avenue. “It was red tagged. I never spent another night there. I lost everything.”
Some 6,000 homes and buildings in Santa Cruz County were destroyed in the earthquake. The 31 wooden and concrete victims on Pacific Avenue included the beloved Cooper House, a former Victorian courthouse that housed shops and a jazz band on its patio.
Three people died along Pacific Avenue as old brick buildings surrendered and cascaded into hills of cracked brick and splintered boards. The victims were killed when a wall of Book Shop Santa Cruz collapsed into the Santa Cruz Roasting Company. It took days to pull out the bodies. Scheuer clicked a photo of a rescue worker lying in the debris, drained emotionally and physically from the grizzly effort.
Even now, 25 years after the quake, a large empty lot remained where the bookstore stood, the last barren plot left undeveloped.
“Just standing next to this hole in the ground where three people died 25 years ago,” Scheuer said, “I get this chill.”
Outside a cafe next to the sunken lot, Al Smith sipped a coffee at a 19th century building that somehow survived the quake. He recalled drinking coffee at the Roasting Company the day when the San Andreas Fault erupted. He had sprinted from the building just before the walls came down.
“People were screaming and running out of the bookshop at the time,” remembered Smith, a retired seismologist. “Looking at the back of the bookshop, you could see these bricks falling down, and then the wall came down on the adjacent building.”
Smith said 25 years after the earthquake, work to finally build on the empty lot was months from kicking off.
Scheuer peered into a gap along the tarped fence shielding the lot from the sidewalk. He clicked a few pictures of the unchecked weeds growing along the walls where the bookstore tumbled.
“I really feel like the earthquake ripped the heart out of this town,” he said shouldering his camera.