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THE BAY AREA QUAKE : 5:04 P.M. : A TIME WHEN LIVES CHANGED : Tales of the Quake: Death, Heroes and Luck : A Final Act of Generosity

October 20, 1989|MILES CORWIN

No doubt about it, Robin Ortiz had a big heart.

The homeless, who hung around the open air downtown mall in Santa Cruz where she had worked her way up from server to production supervisor at a coffee shop and retailing outlet, knew her as a soft touch for a free cup. In her spare time, she passed out free contraceptives in the mall as part of an AIDS awareness project.

"She was a sweetheart," said Barbara Hoglund, who was sipping one of those complimentary coffees when Tuesday's earthquake struck.

In fact, Robin Ortiz's last act was apparently one of generosity and sacrifice.

When the quake began, about 20 workers and customers were inside the single-story brick building that housed the Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Co. Witnesses said Ortiz must have been the first in the building to feel the shaking.

"Earthquake. Evacuate the building!" she screamed. And almost everyone did, but Ortiz and two others stayed behind.

In the back of the building, where Ortiz had been, the roof collapsed. Gary French, a janitor for the coffee firm, said Ortiz probably ducked under a desk, but got buried in a downpour of rubble that blocked any escape through the back door.

"I'm sure she saved some lives," said French. "She got people out of there in a hurry."

Within hours, authorities began digging through the debris. With the help of rescue dogs, they freed a woman who had been trapped and found the body of a man who died in the collapse. But early Wednesday morning, with aftershocks threatening further damage to the structure, they suspended the search for Ortiz.

That clearly outraged friends and co-workers of Ortiz, who clung to the dim hope that she might somehow still be alive. Work resumed by 10:30 a.m. As workers sifted gingerly through the ruins, about 30 people, held at bay by yellow-colored police tape, conducted a vigil outside the building to pay homage to Ortiz and protest the slow pace of rescue efforts.

"Robin, Robin," they chanted softly, pausing occasionally to break into folk songs and hymns. As night fell and authorities once again halted rescue efforts, several protesters in the crowd began shouting "Don't leave her there" and demanded that work continue under floodlights. A spokesman for the Santa Cruz Police Department said that a nighttime search would be too dangerous and could threaten the safety of rescue workers.

Eventually, some angry protesters broke through police lines. At least five were arrested, and some claimed police had struck them with night sticks.

"It's ridiculous that they've stopped searching now," sobbed Kristin Riley, a junior at UC Santa Cruz and one of the demonstrators. . . . It's like they were just (kissing) her off."

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