The tart smell of wine hit customers walking through the doors of the Minit Shop convenience store in Ridgecrest on Thursday afternoon.
It had been a few hours since a magnitude 6.4 earthquake — the largest to hit Southern California in nearly two decades — jolted Kern County, and pools of red wine soaked the shop floors.
“Oh, God!” yelped one customer who saw collapsed shelves of refrigerated drinks in the back of the store.
Photos of scattered goods in several Ridgecrest stores spread rapidly across social media on Thursday as news of the quake spread.
Authorities in Ridgecrest received dozens of calls for help on Thursday, responding to requests for medical assistance and help with structure fires. But luckily, local officials said, there were no serious injuries reported, just cuts and bruises.
The 10:33 a.m. Independence Day quake was centered 10 miles northeast of Ridgecrest, a city of about 29,000 people. Its epicenter was in the remote Searles Valley area near where Inyo, San Bernardino and Kern counties meet.
The sparsely populated location of the Searles Valley quake appeared to help mitigate the damage.
Javaid Waseem, who owns the Minit Shop with his brother, said it could take days to clean up the store. He had been tidying up for several hours Thursday afternoon.
“This is the first time I’ve seen this since I moved to California,” said Waseem, who moved to the state from New York in 2006. “I’ve never seen this hard of an earthquake before in this region. I’m glad we are safe, but the damage inside the store — it’s going to take time.”
Waseem, 45, was at home when the earthquake hit but drove to the store after his brother called asking for help. The brothers shut off the gas lines to the pumps outside, closed the store and called in extra employees to help clean up the mess.
The store reopened later in the afternoon, and a steady stream of customers came by to fill their tanks, wary of another quake.
At 4 p.m. several aisles were still closed. Hairspray cans, diapers, beer cans and pet food kibbles littered the floor. Workers swept up broken glass and wiped off products to see what they could salvage and put back on the shelves.
By 6 p.m., a local family had formed an assembly-line system at the back of the store to help clean up the mountains of collapsed shelves and drinks in the refrigerated section of the store.
Friends and business partners Warren Cooper and Brandon McDonald posted on Facebook asking the Ridgecrest community who might need help with any fallout from the morning quake. They drove to homes to move furniture and look at water leaks, checked in on their family members and asked local authorities what they could do to help with communication.
“Anybody we could see, we asked them if they were OK. People were just shaken,” said Cooper, who has lived in Ridgecrest all his life.
Cooper, 30, got a call from the owners of the Minit Shop asking for his help cleaning up. He and McDonald looked for reinforcements and reached out to Brandon’s mother, Helen McDonald, who Cooper calls his “adopted mom.”
Helen McDonald, 44, her husband and her several of her sons organized drinks into bins and stacked crates Thursday evening — sidestepping puddles of soda and shards of broken glass at the back of the shop.
“The community has to come together because nobody can do all this stuff on their own,” Helen McDonald, has lived in Ridgecrest with her family for 12 years, said as she rubbed her cold hands together for warmth. “I feel very blessed that my house was skipped.”
Cooper said he plans on welding the broken metal shelves back together and reinstalling them on Friday.
“That’s the blessing of a small town,” Waseem said, handing another crate to the family to store drinks that survived the quake.
Bonnie Patterson, a lifelong Ridgecrest resident, stopped at the shop to get gas earlier that day after seeing police and news vans in town. She said she was reading at home when the earthquake hit but didn’t think anything of it. She’s used to tremors shaking her hometown, she said.
“Ridgecrest is like an epicenter for earthquakes,” said Patterson, 46. “We have little ones all the time, so feeling them — no big deal. But then an aftershock hit and that’s when I was like, ‘Oh, crap.’”
Some dishes in Patterson’s cupboards, items her fireplace mantel and pieces of fine china flew to the floor. As she began to clean, she heard sirens and got calls from coworkers warning her to brace for aftershocks.
“That’s when I was like, ‘Oh my gosh — I guess I need to take this a little more seriously.’”
When Patterson got to the Minit Shop, where she has been shopping for years, she saw broken bottles all over the floor.
“Alcohol was just flooding the aisle,” Patterson said. “The brothers who own it are just the most awesome people. [The] store is a mess, everything is drenched and one owner was still behind the counter smiling and welcoming people in.”
She then drove to Walmart, where employees handed out free cases of Gatorade and water earlier in the day. When she got there at 3 p.m., Walmart had closed and was out of supplies.
While there, as Patterson chatted with a Walmart employee about where he was when the quake hit, another aftershock rattled the parking lot.
Times staff writer Hailey Branson-Potts contributed to this report.