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10.14.09

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Phaedra

AFTER EFFECTS: Minutes after the Loma Prieta Earthquake, several old buildings in downtown Los Gatos collapsed. Business was dead for years.

Remembering Loma Prieta

Twenty years later, the devastating earthquake is recalled fondly in a town that got hit hard

By Colleen Watson


ANYONE who was in the Bay Area on Oct. 17, 1989, remembers exactly what they were doing and whom they were with at 5:04pm, when the magnitude 6.9 Loma Prieta Earthquake hit.

Residents of Los Gatos were hit harder than almost anyone in Santa Clara County. Homes were knocked off their foundations, some of the oldest buildings on Main Street were badly damaged and fires broke out throughout the town. Residents went without power for days while some moved into tents in their yards.

Diane McNutt, now the vice mayor, remembers driving down North Santa Cruz Avenue with her husband, Michael Cronk. At 5:04pm, they were passing in front of the Bank of America. "I thought he was playing around—joggling the wheel around," she recalls. "But then I saw people falling on the sidewalk."

McNutt remembers looking out at the Santa Cruz Mountains in the distance. "It's a very strong image for me to see," she says. "It was almost like smoke. but it was dust rising up off of the mountains. Then I realized it had been an earthquake."

It took the McNutts half an hour to get to their home near Los Gatos High School. She remembers a near chaos, "streets being closed, sidewalks bent up and people just going nuts. There was just so much confusion and fear."

Though the house was undamaged, most of the furniture had fallen over. The family had no power for about four days.

"Our neighbors ran an extension cord so we could have lights and watch television," she says. "And I learned to appreciate peanut butter on bread because we ate that for every meal for a couple of days."

Judy Coughlin, an assistant librarian at the time, remembers walking into the town library after the earthquake to find everything on the floor. Other than the mess, however, the only real damage was from a piano that went through the window in the children's area.

"We've been told the town building was built as a bomb shelter so it was pretty sturdily built," she says. Nevertheless, the library was forced to close for a couple of weeks. "All the books had to be picked up, everything had to be braced, so that took a while," Coughlin says. But elsewhere, the damage was significant.

"I remember the next morning walking downtown and seeing the damage to the Beckwith Building," she says.

"Downtown was a ghost town."


Downtown Down

The earthquake had dealt a serious blow to Los Gatos' downtown business district. It shook the facade off the Beckwith Building, built in 1893. Joe Hargett, owner of Dolce Spazio, remembers running out of his office there and up the hill. He also remembers seeing the dust rising off the mountains, "You're accustomed to the shaking," he says, "[but] the cloud of dust was kind of strange."

Dolce Spazio was a popular gelato shop and one of the first espresso bars to open in Los Gatos. "We'd been in the Beckwith building since about 1980," Hargett says. That was over.

Most of the business district was shut down for months. After the earthquake, Dolce Spazio had to move the gelateria, and opened in a new location on North Santa Cruz Avenue two months later. But fallout from the quake lasted much longer than that.

The problem, according to Hargett, was that people weren't coming to Los Gatos anymore. Everyone seemed to think that the whole town had been destroyed.

"We launched a program to enlighten people that Los Gatos was still alive and that there were many, many merchants still running," he says. "We all worked together and a year later we had a block party downtown and sort of celebrated a one year anniversary."

And now, 20 years later, downtown Los Gatos is once again thriving.

As with seemingly all disasters, those who lived through the Loma Prieta Earthquake in Los Gatos remember how the community came together to try and help each other out.

Everyone remembers that C.B. Hannegan's, the beloved Irish pub, was one of the few businesses that had power after the quake; that owner John Hannegan kept the place open and fixed food for shell-shocked people who wandered in. They recall the volunteers who helped reshelf the thousands of displaced books that had flown off shelves at the library. Loma Prieta is remembered as a moment when the community banded together to get through one of the most difficult times in its history.

"For years it would come up in conversation and everyone around the table or at a meeting would want to share what they were doing at the time," McNutt says. "You just needed to talk about your experience, whether it was major or minor. It seems to be part of human spirit to share that."


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