Women's Marathon tents cover Union Square 20 years after the quake.
Saturday was the 20th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake
. To those who were killed and injured it was a tragedy, but the total loss could have been a lot worse. 63 people died, and more calamitous natural- and man-made disasters since that fateful day have put Loma Prieta in perspective. There were pockets of heavy damage, but most of the Bay Area quickly recovered. The quake of '89 was a valuable wake-up call; it motivated residents to make preparations for the big quake that scientists say is inevitable.
As one Chronicle writer opined
Loma Prieta was one of those watershed events; in some ways, the disaster was a blessing in disguise. Out of it came a brand new San Francisco waterfront, the revival of a rundown neighborhood in Hayes Valley, major upgrades of classic buildings in downtown Oakland, and new laws on unreinforced old buildings. One of these years, a new eastern half of the Bay Bridge will open.
Herewith my personal recollection of that day:
It was an early evening in October, and our department was assembling next year’s business plan. Most employees had left the office to watch the third game of the World Series. The building jolted, but nothing fell over, and the rumbling ceased after a few seconds.
I asked the staff to keep working. We had loaded half the data onto the HP minicomputer and didn’t want to stop until a first draft was run. The new analyst from Southern California stared at me with wide eyes. You should call home, she said. On speaker phone my wife's voice was frantic—pictures had fallen, broken china littered the kitchen, and she was leaving the house. Then the main power went out and the line went dead. I guess we should go home, I said.
A dozen of us gathered in the lobby. We were 20 floors up, the elevators were deactivated, and building security announced over the PA system that we should not exit until they checked the stairs. We didn’t have cell-phones, laptop computers, the Internet, or disaster training. Nobody knew what to do or how to communicate.
I grabbed the portable TV that I had brought to watch the Series. The Sony Watchman, about twice as thick as an iPhone, ran on 4 AA batteries. The concrete-and-glass walls in the highrise degraded the signal; the black-and-white picture was grainy, but the audio was decent. The reporters read the news in unemotional tones; journalists felt no need to hype developments with breathless excitement and excessive adjectives. This was one evening when no descriptors were needed. The Marina was burning, freeways had collapsed, the Bay Bridge was closed, and BART was shut down. The power was off throughout the City as darkness descended.
We got the all-clear and walked down the central metal staircase. Bay Bridge commuters couldn’t use any of the bridges to return home; getting to the East Bay via San Jose over uncertain roads portended a long night. Marin County drivers had no option but the Golden Gate Bridge. They were lucky; San Francisco’s landmark had held. We hugged before we parted.
Pedestrians and cars milled about the City streets. Buses crept at walking speed, letting passengers on and off at each corner. That night public transit was free. The street lights were off, not even blinking. Despite the paralyzed traffic no one honked his horn. The quiet was punctuated by the sound of the occasional siren. In the fading light we could see smoke to the east and the north.
The sun had set when I arrived at 4th & Townsend. There had been no need to rush to the Caltrain station. All trains had halted at 5:04. They wouldn't leave until engineers had inspected every mile of track and tunnels.
Caltrain turned on the running lights in the idle cars, as passengers played cards, listened to the radio, and engaged in conversation. Periodically they would try to reach their loved ones with only spotty success using the bank of Pacific Bell pay phones. It was pitch dark. One passenger shone his flashlight on the phones until the batteries ran out. Others used matches and cigarette lighters to see the numbers.
A little after 10 p.m. the trains began running at half speed. Spaced five minutes apart, they stopped at every station on the line. [From my holiday letter of 1989]:
We, as did most of our acquaintances, made it through the October 17th earthquake largely unscathed. Broken crockery and a few cracks in the plaster comprised the extent of the damage to our house. But I'll never forget the hours of anxious separation as we struggled to make it home across a darkened Bay Area, unable to call our loved ones. When I walked through the front door at 11:30, over six hours after the quake, my beloved poured out her frustrations and fears. But I was only listening with half an ear, so wonderful was the feeling of relief that everyone and everything were going to be all right. © 2009 Stephen Yuen