By the sound of it, Mobile business owner Matt Finklea and friends were having an epic trip to Napa Valley even before they were awakened in the early morning hours of Aug. 24 by the strongest earthquake to hit California in 25 years. Having arrived a few days earlier to celebrate his and a California friend’s mutual birthday, Finklea and his party visited a memorial for comedian Robin Williams in San Francisco and later headed out for wine tastings in Sonoma and Napa Valley before eventually having one-on-one time with former Formula One racer Jimmy Vasser, who opened his own vineyard in Napa in 2008.
The group settled into a hotel late Saturday night without the slightest hint their wakeup call would be not an alarm clock, but a powerful earthquake with its epicenter just a few miles down the road.
“It was the most violent, uncontrolled, chaotic feeling you can imagine,” Finklea recalled last week.
“We were sound asleep at 3:20 a.m. and heard this roar that woke us up. The next thing you know, all hell broke loose.”
Finklea, the owner of Matt Finklea Concrete and Design, is a native of Alabama and a professed globetrotter. Still, the earthquake was the first he’d experienced.
“You hear a roar – an indescribable roar – then the shaking starts and it was super violent,” he said. “The entire building was moving four inches each direction super fast … it knocked houses of foundations, facades collapsed, roads had six-inch wide cracks. There was an area right outside downtown Napa where houses burned down.”
Among those in Finklea’s party, in the same hotel, was Bobby Smith, president and CEO of Mobile’s Rubber Hose and Gasket Co. For Smith, the earthquake was equally foreign yet somehow, unmistakable.
“I was awakened by the sound,” he said. “I thought it a car was out of control and crashed through the room, but then there was a violent shaking.”
Smith described how the room was dimly lit from streetlights outside as he opened his eyes and watched a clock begin to vibrate on a dresser. Immediately, the entire bed began to jolt and as he attempted to get up, he was rocked back down.
“As soon as the vibrations started, I knew it was an earthquake,” Smith said.
Both men reported the shaking lasting between 10-15 seconds and experiencing much smaller, less intense aftershocks later. Both Finklea and Smith have survived multiple hurricanes, but said there were few comparisons.
“As far as property damage maybe you have the same kind of deal, but with this there is absolutely no warning where with a hurricane you have a week and a half to two weeks of preparation,” Finklea said. “This, there is zero preparation and 15 seconds of total destruction taking place. You can give me a hurricane every month of the season before I take another earthquake.”
Still, Finklea said the experience wouldn’t keep him from returning to California or any earthquake-prone country.
Smith called it an “experience I would never want to give up.”
Officially, the quake was recorded as a magnitude 6.0. There were around 200 injuries attributed to the event – primarily from lacerations and falling debris – but no deaths. Preliminary damage estimates reach $1 billion.
“We had a great time and went to bed and it was the last thing on my mind,” Smith said. “We can make light of it now and I’m thankful nobody got seriously hurt or killed.”