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Recalling the Big Rumble of 1989

By Sunny Lockwood

The corner of Beach and Divisadero Streets in San Francisco’s Marina District.
[photo courtesy of J.K. Nakata, U.S. Geologic Survey]

October 2009 marks 20 years since California’s Loma

Prieta earthquake killed 63 people, crumpled a section of
double-decker freeway and collapsed part of the San
Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
Collapsed building in San Francisco’s Marina District.
[photos courtesy of C.E. Meyer, U.S. Geological Survey]

Side view of support column failure and collapse of the upper deck of the Cypress
Street Viaduct.
Pancaked upper deck of the Cypress Street Viaduct. The guardrail at right was on
the lower deck. [photo courtesy of H.G. Wilshire, U.S. Geologic Survey]

Copyright 2009 Merikay Mcleod

All Rights Reserved
First electronic printing, October, 2009
There are some days you never forget.
It was a Tuesday. Fans anxious to see the third game of the World
Series filled Candlestick Park. The two local teams were pitted against each
other – the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics. It was fun to
watch all the local boys playing together. Since the Athletics had won the
first two games, we who were rooting for San Francisco hoped our team
would rally now that they were playing on their home field.
Before I settled down in front of the TV to watch the game, I phoned
in an order for Chinese food, then drove to the mall about two miles from
my condo to pick up fried rice and mushu vegetables. But first, I ran into the
grocery store to get some milk and eggs for tomorrow’s breakfast.
As I entered the store it sounded like a huge truck was roaring by the
floor-to-ceiling front windows and a man started yelling at me, “Get away
from the windows! Get away from the windows!”
In a flash I realized it was an earthquake, not a truck. The windows
were billowing like flags in the wind. I looked up at the ceiling and the metal
roof was rippling overhead like an angry sea. Where could I hide? All I
could think of was ducking under cover because I knew the roof was coming
But there’s nowhere to hide in a grocery store. Bottles and cans flew
off the shelves. Apples, oranges, potatoes and onions rolled off tables and
bounced around on the floor. It seemed like everything was moving and
smashing and then it was over. The roof did not collapse.
It was as if everyone in the store had been holding their breaths and
now we all let them out in a big, group sigh. I found myself pressing up
against a muscular young checker while other shoppers crouched or clung to
each other. Embarrassed, I stepped back. The checker turned around and
stuck out his hand, “I’m Brandon.” He said with a smile.
“I’m Sunny,” I said as we both laughed and shook hands. The humor
helped, even though we were both shaking. I skipped the milk and eggs.
Outside, another woman and I checked the parking lot to make sure
no senior citizens had fallen down or were disoriented.
I picked up my order of Chinese, climbed in the car, thinking this was
a bigger than usual quake, and turned on the radio. Static was all I heard. I
punched through the buttons as I pulled out of the parking lot. Then punched
through them again. Finally I heard reporters on KGO saying that a traffic
helicopter was reporting a huge cloud of dust rising from the Cypress Street
Viaduct area of the Nimitz Freeway. Their voices were subdued. When they
said the ballgame was being suspended, I turned off the radio and
concentrated on driving.
Traffic was thick and tentative. All the signals were out, and drivers
were treating intersections as four-way stops. It took a long time to get
home. When I finally drove into my condo complex, people were standing in
little groups, listening to transistor radios.
One of my neighbors said the Bay Bridge had collapsed.
“Awe c’mon!” I said. “Some goofball always calls in whenever
there’s an earthquake saying the Golden Gate or the Bay Bridge is down. It’s
just a crank call.”
The group stared at me as if I was the crank. Then one of them said,
“It was reported by a traffic helicopter.”
By now it was growing dark and I was hungry. So I went inside and lit
a candle and ate my rice and veggie supper. The building shivered and shook
every few minutes, making me wonder if I should actually sleep inside that
What do you do in a case like this?
The phones were out so I couldn’t call anyone and I suspected that
everyone I knew in the area was dealing with the same fear and confusion I
felt. Why would it be better for me to sleep in someone else’s shaking
house? Eventually, I blew out the candle and climbed into bed. It was a fitful
night, full of frightening aftershocks.
At 2:30 a.m. I got up, dressed in the dark and left for my early
morning, paper delivery job. Since there was still no electricity, I had a real
struggle getting the garage door open, and then closed.
My paper route covered downtown Palo Alto. With only sporadic
electricity, most street lights were out and I found myself stumbling around
in the dark on streets I was usually quite familiar with. Several times I had to
enter apartment buildings. That was really scary. No functioning elevators
meant I had to run up and down stairs, and all the time the buildings were
shivering with aftershock spasms, their pipes and “bones” groaning. Even in
the newer buildings, big, jagged cracks ran up the walls as if warning of
worse things to come. My fear that the building might collapse at any
moment, burying me (along with all the other people and their morning
papers), kept me hurrying as fast as possible to deliver the papers and get
outta there!
I kept the car radio on and from the nonstop news coverage I learned
that the 17-second temblor measured more than seven on the Richter scale.
The epicenter, near Loma Prieta peak in the Santa Cruz Mountains, was nine
miles northeast of Santa Cruz and 60 miles south-southeast of San
The huge dust cloud I’d heard about last night on the radio was
created when a double-deck portion of the Nimitz Freeway, known as the
Cypress Street Viaduct, collapsed. The numbers of cars and their occupants
crushed in the collapse were not yet known. There was major damage in
San Francisco’s Marina District and, in Santa Cruz, 40 buildings had
I had a cousin in San Francisco, and wondered if he’d escaped the
carnage. There was no way to tell until our telephones were working again.
It took a few days, but eventually electricity and telephone service
was restored and life began to limp back toward normal. My cousin was
fine. Friends and relatives from around the country called to check on my
safety. And statisticians began giving us a clearer picture of the disaster so
many of us survived.
The quake killed 63 people and injured another 3,757. More than
12,000 homes and 2,600 businesses were damaged.
In the Marina District, four people died, four buildings were destroyed
by fire, seven buildings collapsed, and 63 damaged structures were judged
too dangerous to live in.
Total property damage was estimated at $6 billion.
Amazingly, all 62,038 at Candlestick Park escaped without injury.
Resumption of the World Series (which Oakland won 4-0) was put off
for 10 days.
Because of the game-related sports coverage, Loma Prieta was the
first major earthquake in America to have its initial jolt broadcast live on
And now, in October 2009, everyone’s recalling that traumatic event
of 20 years ago. The Sacramento Bee newspaper asked people to post their
memories and got hundreds of responses. People remembered driving on the
freeway and thinking they’d broken an axle their car was bouncing so.
People working in skyscrapers remembered screams coming from
elevators as the metal boxes banged against the sides of the elevator shaft.
One man wrote that he and his family slept outside in a tent for a
week following the quake.
A high-end hotel manager in San Francisco, with a full house because
of the World Series, remembers trying to care for guests despite no
electricity and a constantly convulsing building. He described how staff used
flashlights to escort guests to and from their rooms, and how the kitchen
crew prepared cold hor d’oeuvres by candle light. He said he and other
managers stayed around the clock for two days, using candles for light.
Even the current mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, recalled
being in his mother’s apartment in the Marina District when the quake hit.
He said it was intensely frightening. He grabbed a video camera and ran
outside to film buildings buckling. Later that evening, he ran into baseball
great Joe Di Maggio at the Marina Middle School, where many people went
for shelter and comfort.
Aside from my own experience, the story I love best came from an
ABC radio producer who I had worked with over the years. His small, north
beach apartment looked out over an older neighborhood street. He’d turned
on the TV to watch the game and had just sat down with a pizza at his small
table next to the window when the temblor hit.
He glanced out the window at the exact moment when an elderly man
tumbled to the sidewalk across the street and a rickety, wooden garage
collapsed on top of him.
As quickly as possible my friend ran outside. Another neighbor had
also seen the building bury the old man and the two guys began frantically
pushing and pulling at boards, trying to free the man buried in the rubble.
As the earth shook around them, they yanked and strained and began
to tear the old wooden garage apart. After about 10 minutes, they could see
the man, crumpled beneath the pile of wood and shingles. His eyes were
open and he seemed alert.
“Don’t worry, we’ll get you out,” they said, trying to reassure him.
About 10 minutes later, they had a large enough opening that they
could help him crawl out. As the elderly man emerged from the rubble and
stood up, brushing the dirt off himself, he looked at them and asked,
“What’s the score?”