Special Reports

Top story of 2003: San Simeon quake brings death, damage

Earthquake causes building to collapse in Paso Robles. Photo by Joe Johnston  12/22/03
Earthquake causes building to collapse in Paso Robles. Photo by Joe Johnston 12/22/03

Editor's note: Here is the story Tribune staff chose as the biggest story of the year in 2003. The article, originally published on Jan. 1, 2004, is reprinted below.

County residents could, perhaps, be excused for being a bit blase about the danger of earthquakes.

For, in more than a century, the largest shakers around the state had done little more than toss some mantles and claim a few chimneys.

As cities great and small fell, San Luis Obispo County seemed almost immune.

That changed at 11:15:56 a.m. Dec. 22.

At that moment, the earth some 4.7 miles below Hearst Ranch, where the Pacific and North American plates generally slide slowly against each other, suddenly jerked. In that instant, mountains grew, perhaps a foot, and as a federal spokesman said, the entire planet "rung like a bell."

People all around the county and to a lesser extent Californians up and down the state quickly went through their well-trained mental checklist. Do I run or do I stay? Do I go for the doorway or get under the desk? Is it over?

In Paso Robles, which saw the worst of the damage, residents flocked to the City Park and stared in disbelief. A short time later, that turned to despair when the bodies of two women were pulled from the rubble of the Acorn building.

But through most of the county, when the shaking stopped relief took over. Tens of thousands were without power, but all but a few hundred still had homes and workplaces standing. The biggest quake in the known history of the county had broken possessions, but destroyed relatively little when compared to other earthquakes, such as the one of similar magnitude that killed 28,000 in Iran on Friday.

In Paso Robles, dozens of TV satellite trucks had arrived by day's end to document the damage. And while residents could count their blessings that more destruction hadn't visited the county, the rebuilding process in financial and emotional terms could stretch over years.

The myth of immunity has been shattered. Next time, and seismologists insist there will be a next time, the county will have no excuses.