Tenants of 330 Esplanade scrambled to move out. The evacuation order came at 6 a.m. and at first they were given all day, but that deadline was shortened as high tide approached around 11 a.m.
"We were terrified with that 20 minute evacuation thing because we still had stuff everywhere. I didn't know what I needed and what I could leave," said evacuee Amanda O'Connell.
The cliff below their apartments began collapsing Monday and on Wednesday night a 30-foot chunk fell away, triggering the evacuation order.
"What you're seeing here is the wave action at the bottom of the cliff eroding the bluff wall and once the erosion takes place at the bottom, it shears off vertically because it's sandstone," said Doug Rider, a Pacifica building official.
Monday, Bonnie Ricci had 20 feet of ice plant off her back porch, but on Thursday it was gone. She was just diagnosed with skin cancer and now has to deal with this emergency. She's putting her belongings in storage and will spend the holidays with family in the area.
"I immediately went into overwhelm. I'm shaking. It's surreal," said Ricci.
The potential for disaster is no surprise here, the buildings on either side of 330 Esplanade recently had boulders placed installed at the cliff base to prevent wave erosion, and they are successfully deflecting the waves. Rick Jenkins lives in one of those neighboring buildings.
"Unfortunately the rocks stopped right about midway at this walkway, so they've had no protection at all," said Jenkins.
Contractors say the building owner has given them the go-ahead to put in the same kind of boulders below 330 Esplanade. The city says if successful, that means tenants could be back in before Christmas.
"So once you stop the erosion they can come back in and then maybe we'll work on replacing some of the land that's gone," said Rider.
Some of those residents may not want to come back to the apartment building, even if they are allowed to.
The street was blocked off early Thursday night to accommodate a giant crane that needs five or six hours to be assembled before it begins hoisting boxes full of boulders off the street, over the building, and down the 80-foot cliff to the beach.
Past attempts at protecting the cliff
Many are wondering what could have been done to prevent this type of slide. It turns out the apartment buildings on both sides of the slide area and the building in danger have protection, but the property owners of 330 Esplanade thought they had time to negotiate over who would pay for it. However, that delay has cost them.
As she was packing her belongings into a truck, Cathy O'Brien told ABC7 she had heard for years about plans to safeguard the cliff.
"We've been hearing that something was going to be done to help shore up the cliff," said O'Brien.
And in fact apartment buildings both to the north and south were protected earlier this year when boulders were placed on the beach to break up the waves before they hit the cliff face.
"We did the work last summer in front of 310 and 320," said Tony Fortunato, the owner of Engineered Soil Repairs.
Fortunato says he doesn't know why the owners at the neighboring apartment didn't go along. The property manager at 330 says there were issues.
"I know there's applications, I know there's been some property line issues, but I really haven't been part of it," said Randall Nelson, the property manager.
The issue is the beach in front of most of the endangered area isn't owned by the apartments that are risk. It's owned by a neighbor. The property lines are pretty irregular with one property owner to the south actually owning the beach in front of three of his neighbors to the north -- the apartment complexes.
Dennis Thomas is one of those neighbors who says "Obviously, I don't own this land and it's impossible for me to put rock on their property."
Thomas owns 340 Esplanade just south of where the cliff is collapsing. He, along with the owner of the threatened apartment building and the neighbor to the south that owns the beach, have all been negotiating over what protection to put in and who should pay for it. Everyone thought there was plenty of time to sort it out.
"All of this has occurred in the last few hours. Where were you guys two weeks ago on this? Didn't you see it?" asked Thomas.
Actually the whole Bay Area has seen it because for years ABC7 has been reporting on the cliff erosion along Esplanade Avenue in Pacifica. The latest incident was when six buildings were lost at the north end of the street.
"Obviously, everybody thought they had the time. You know, it wasn't a sense of urgency until this starts to happen," said Thomas.
Now that it has happened, Thomas has pushed aside his earlier concerns.
"I gave permission this morning to Steve O'Conner at ESR to do whatever it takes, arm this, I don't care if it's on my property or not, get the rocks down there, stop the bluff eroding," said Thomas.
The company that owns the big piece of the beach in front of these apartments is headquartered in Denver. A spokeswoman for Aimco told ABC7 the company is applying for an emergency permit and will get boulders onto the beach as soon as possible. Like Thomas, the spokesperson said no one thought it would happen this fast. The erosion has certainly put things in a different perspective for these property owners on this stretch of Esplanade.