Town suffers emotional brunt of quake

Residents of Paso Robles mourn loss of neighbors, property, historic tower

December 24, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PASO ROBLES, Calif. - Though Monday's earthquake was felt from Los Angeles to San Francisco, its destructive epicenter was here in this small central California city where two women died, nearly 50 buildings were damaged, sulfur springs bubbled through the streets and a historic clock tower crumbled to the ground.

The recovery of property continued yesterday in the historic downtown decorated in ribbon and holiday lights. And as workers sifted through the debris, residents were looking for something good to hold on to after the calamity that struck at the corner of Park and 12th streets.

One of the saddest places in town, surely, was up on a hill in the southern part of town. Up there is a dream house, decorated for Christmas, with a three-car garage, an etched glass door still intact and men laying sod and stone in the rain.

A graying man with a mustache answered a knock on the door.

"Is this where Marilyn Zafuto lives?" he was asked.

"Yes," he said, and then corrected himself. "Well, it was."

Marilyn Zafuto, 55, was killed by falling debris as she ran from a dress shop onto Park Street. A co-worker, Jennifer Myrick, 19, who was engaged to be married, died beside her.

At the house on the hill, there were presents wrapped in pretty paper underneath the tree behind the man. The man shrugged his shoulders, his eyes welled up with tears and then he turned quietly around and locked the door behind him without identifying himself.

In front of the house, one of the landscapers stood in the steady rain with the handle of the shovel underneath his chin. He said he was related to the Zafutos through a convoluted, small-town web of marriage and business arrangements.

"Not much of a Christmas for him, is it?" he said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger visited the destruction yesterday morning and promised to visit the families of the dead. He signed a proclamation declaring San Luis Obispo County a disaster area and pledged that the state would help the county.

As of yesterday afternoon, there were no official local or statewide estimates of damage, he said.

Schwarzenegger said he and his wife, Maria Shriver, would pray for the those who died. "We all share the pain for those who lost their lives," he told about 300 people who stood in the rain to hear him speak.

Paso Robles, population about 25,000, is halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles along U.S. 101 and was once a farming and resort town. It has remade itself into a wine country destination, with boutiques and turn-of-the-century charm. Its residents proudly call it a small town and say that even in good times, neighbors are practically treated like family.

Early yesterday, Christy Howland was helped by firefighters to retrieve her Christmas gifts from her crushed Chevrolet.

Nick Sherwin, who maintained the clock tower that collapsed onto Park Street and who owned the jewelry store underneath it, kept the twisted arms of the clock in his van. He will give them to the building owner, Mary Mastagni, with the hope it will make her feel better.

Sherwin's wife, Patricia, and his daughter, June Ellart, huddled around cups of coffee underneath the awning of a miniature Christmas house in the town square, wondering whether they would be allowed to gather up the store's jewelry. The authorities said no.

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