EDITOR'S NOTE: During the final two weeks of 2011, the Sentinel is taking a look back at the most newsworthy stories and newsmakers of the year. The series will be published in ascending order, ending on Jan. 1 with the story selected by the Sentinel staff as the year's biggest.
WATSONVILLE ? When Stephanie Phillips first smelled smoke about 3:30 p.m. April 20, she thought it would probably turn out to be nothing, or at least of little consequence.
Then, as firefighters tackled flames rising from the historic warehouse on West Beach Street, she decided to wait and watch while they extinguished the blaze.
But it took three days and dozens of firefighters from several counties to put out Watsonville's most significant fire in years. By then, the Apple Growers Ice & Cold Storage warehouse was gutted, a $10 million loss to the structure and its contents, mostly Martinelli's apple cider.
Phillips, Apple Growers manager, said she never would have guessed her world would be upended on what had been a typical Wednesday afternoon.
?It just seems like this is the end of an era,? Phillips said earlier this month as she presided over what looks to be the final chapter in a business that dates to the late 1920s and symbolizes a time when apples formed the Pajaro Valley's economic foundation.
?This place has been here for so long,? she said. ?It's sad.?
Cork and redwood insulationtarred to the concrete walls of the warehouse fueled what was later ruled an accidental fire sparked by roofers. Pallets of apple juice stacked high and close prevented firefighters from working the blaze from the inside, and due to the age of the building, there were no sprinklers.
That first night, concern about the potential for a toxic ammonia leak from refrigeration pipes and deteriorating air quality due to smoke led to emergency warning calls to 28,000 phone customers within a three-mile radius. Hundreds of fish died in nearby Watsonville Slough as soot and foam poured into the water.
At its peak, 16 engines, three ladder trucks and 80 firefighters battled the four-alarm fire.
Watsonville Fire Chief Mark Bisbee said the burn time, the number of firefighters involved, and the impact on habitat and air quality all made Apple Growers a consequential fire ?not just for Watsonville, but probably for the (San Francisco) Bay Area.?
The fire cost $227,000 to fight. Watsonville spent nearly $40,000, and the rest had to be absorbed by the agencies providing mutual aid.
S. Martinelli & Co., a Watsonville business with a global reach, lost more than $3 million in apple juice and cider. More would have gone up in flames if not for the efforts of company forklift drivers, who raced ahead of the fire to save a quarter of the stored product.
John Martinelli, president of the 143-year-old family-owned company, said insurance covered the loss, but product was in short supply for several months. Not until early December was inventory back on track, he said.
Martinelli solved a potential storage problem for this year's apple crop ? held in past years at Apple Growers until processing it into cider ? with the purchase of a long vacant frozen food plant.
But the loss that really hurts is the disappearance of a piece of the past, he said. The heirs of the 23 Croatian apple growers, who built the cold storage business in 1928 to store their produce, have decided not to rebuild and the 3.5-acre property is for sale.
The business stood the test of time, though.
Over the years, apples, vegetables, strawberries and nursery stock chilled within its walls. It had become less profitable in recent years, according to the late Steve Zupan, who served as company president until his death in August. But it was still in use. As late as December, undamaged portions of the 78,000-square-foot building held onions grown in Hollister.
?It's tragic,? Martinelli said. ?It's an icon. The facade of that building is such a big part of Watsonville and Watsonville history and especially the apple industry.?
For Phillips, the loss is personal. She's worked at Apple Growers for more than 20 years. Asked what she'll do when the building is sold, she shrugged.
?I don't know,? she said. ?I'll stay until they kick me out.?
?At A Glance
Apple Growers Fire
WHAT: Four-alarm fire at historic warehouse
WHEN: 3:30 p.m. April 20
WHERE: 850 W. Beach St., Watsonville
WHO: More than 80 firefighters responded
CAUSE: Spark from a roofer's torch
DAMAGES: $10 million, building and stored Martinelli's apple cider and juice
ABOUT THE SERIES
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: The Sentinel took a look back Sunday at the year of the whale. This fall, dozens of them put on a spectacular show for kayakers, paddle boarders and boaters just off the coast in Santa Cruz. Read the story at www.santacruzsentinel.com.
MONDAY: Millions of dollars in apples and property were lost in April when a four-alarm fire blazed through the Apple Growers Ice & Cold Storage warehouse in Watsonville.
COMING TUESDAY: David and DeDe Houghton, beloved owners of a Santa Cruz dive shop and engineering firm, and their young sons perished when their plane crashed in July outside Watsonville Community Hospital shortly after takeoff at Watsonville Municipal Airport.