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 down. 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.” “Oh!”

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 night. 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 Francisco. 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 collapsed. 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 television.

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?”