five oh four pee em

I remember being thrown to the floor of The Gap on Pacific Avenue, in Santa Cruz, California.  The lights went out, the sound of glass breaking and masonry rumbled, a car alarms were sounding off. Then silence. Once all customers were out of the store and we were on the street, it was clear what had happened. A huge earthquake had struck, buildings had crumbled, roads had buckled.

People were crying, glass and dust were everywhere, smoke and the smell of fire filled the air. We all gathered in our designated emergency meeting spot and made sure everyone was accounted for.

It was at that point I realized that all of our personal belongings were in the store, upstairs in the employee area. I also realized that emergency closing procedures needed to be followed, like removing the cash from the registers.

Either way, I had to go upstairs. To get there, I had to cross the first floor stockroom to get to the stairwell. When I opened the stockroom door, I couldn’t see a thing. It was pitch black. All power was out and there were no battery operated safety lights. I could not tell if the floor was buckled, or even if it had opened up into the basement below. We didn’t have any flashlights nearby.

One of our stock guys came with me. He held the door open in the pitch black and stepped into the room. I inched my way a little further by shuffling my feet and tapping my toes before me.

As I got a little further in, he stepped in behind me. The hinged door closed behind him. We jumped when it slammed and found ourselves in complete darkness; any ambient light from having the door open was lost.

My eyes buzzed with blackness. It was so dark I felt blind. It was as if I could feel and hear my pupils dilating, frantically trying to see an inch in front of my face.

I felt his hand on my shoulder and I continued to shuffle and tap forward. Slowly we edged our way across the floor. It was uneven in spots and some steps felt too heavy to be sustained by the give in the floor. After about ten minutes we were almost at what was assumed to be the middle of the stockroom.

We froze when the aftershock hit. It felt as if it lasted an hour. When it stopped, there was no denying that we had to be quick. There was not time to just inch our way … the next aftershock could be damaging. We sped up our shuffle, and finally reached the door that led to the stairs. Once opened, we were blinded by the light from the windows upstairs.

We hurried up the stairs and into the employee stockroom and grabbed all the backpacks, purses, and bags. I opened the safe and grabbed the petty cash fund bag. I stuffed all the register cash into the bag and we headed out of the store.

Everyone left with their belongings. We all talked about how we would come back the next morning to clean up the store and prep for reopening.

Little did any of is know the extent of what had happened. Two people died in buildings that collapsed, many more were injured. Part of Highway 17 had collapsed and would take weeks to clear. A section of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco collapsed, the Marina was on fire, and the upper deck of the Embarcadero Freeway had fallen and crushed the traffic below.

Being less than a mile from the epicenter of a 6.9 magnitude earthquake that lasted fifteen seconds but felt like an hour, was the most frightening experience of my life.

It is something I will never forget as long as a live. The sense of my smallness in the world, the futility for everything that used to seem important, the anger of how something like this could happen, and the hopelessness that it could not have been controlled, filled my days and nights for years to follow.

I’d like to say that it’s all behind me, and most of the time it is, but on this day each year at 5:04PM, I take pause to remember.

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One response to “five oh four pee em

  1. You were a hero that day! Probably should have noted in your text – on Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz, CA

    Ellyn Wood Retired and LOVING it! “I think that if ever a mortal heard the voice of God it would be in a garden at the cool of the day.”

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