On October 17, 1989 I was working at Children’s Hospital in San Francisco. My office was on Geary Blvd. at the corner of Commonwealth. I left work that day, as usual, at 5:00 pm. My car was parked next to Rossi Playground, on Anza Street. It took me about 5 minutes to walk up there from the office, so at 5:04 I was just at the corner of Stanyan and Anza, almost all the way across the intersection. My first impression was that my legs were getting weak and shaking. A few seconds later, as I made it to the sidewalk and continued down Anza towards my car, I realized that it wasn’t me, it was an earthquake.
By that time I was standing in front of the house on the corner of Rossi, just across from the park. I stopped as the shaking continued to build in intensity. The two other people nearby also had come to a halt by this time. I looked up at the two-story house I was standing under and decided that I would be better off if I was not under any falling glass or debris. I had taken one or two steps away from the house and towards the park when the earthquake was over. One man emerged from the house across the street. We all looked at each other and smiled. Somebody yelled up at the house, “Is everybody OK up there?” Nobody answered but we had no reason to believe that anybody needed help. I could see no damage of any kind. I continued to my car thinking that it had been the strongest earthquake I had ever felt, but it had not lasted as long as some others. My guess would have been 15 seconds, certainly under half a minute.
When I reached my car about a minute later the first thing I noticed when I turned it on was that the radio wasn’t working. I always leave the radio on so it comes on as soon as I turn on the car. This time nothing. I decided to turn to one of the AM news stations to hear about the quake. I usually did this if it was convenient after an earthquake. The stations revel in getting first hand reports from various areas in order to track down the epicenter, intensity and any damage. I enjoy hearing the story pieced together. This time I tuned to one station after another and got absolutely nothing. So far as I could tell, every radio station in the area was off the air. This was my first indication that things were a little more serious than I thought.
After a minute I got a station, Magic 61, that reported a major earthquake in the San Francisco region, a power failure at Candlestick Park, where Game 3 of the World Series was about to begin between the Giants and the A’s, and then returned to music. I kept tuning up and down the dial until I got KCBS, which was getting reactions from its reporters around the bay. The reports from San Jose were the most dramatic, which didn’t surprise me since over the past few years there had been a series of earthquakes in the San Jose area that had been pretty strong.
As I drove home, the first thing I noticed was that all the traffic lights were out: in fact there was a power failure over the whole area I drove through. It was not yet dark though, so the effect was not serious so far as driving was concerned. This was the only effect of the quake that I saw as I drove home. As it turned out, there was some damage in that area. It became much more apparent a few days later when the bracing started to go up and the yellow police tape blocked off certain houses. I know I felt somewhat skittish as I listened to the radio, and others seemed so as well. As is usual when the traffic lights were out people were generally polite, waiting for others at every intersection and treating the lights as four way stops. The exception to this rule was the Great Highway, where nobody stopped at any of the lights, with no cross traffic there didn’t seem any reason to do so. At two of the busiest intersections on Skyline in Daly City people had stopped their cars and were directing traffic.
The story on the radio was more serious. The power failure was widespread. Candlestick Park was packed with fans who had no way of knowing what was going on, since the PA system was not working due to the power failure. People who were listening to the radio in the stands were being asked to pass on information. It became apparent that the game could not go on so they were asked to pass on the word that everybody should leave. The main information that the stations had at first were the traffic reporters flying around the Bay Area to report on traffic conditions. One reported seeing a big plume of smoke in Berkeley, near the library. Smoke was reported in a number of other locations as well. Many of the people who were on the air remarked that the earthquake felt like it lasted forever. They said it was the strongest they had felt and the longest. I was surprised by this assessment since I had thought it rather short, though strong. Then one of the helicopters reported the collapsed freeway. “Oh no,” I thought, “this just keeps getting worse.”
I began to worry about whether the road to Pacifica was open and about whether Liz and the kids were alright. The first report was just that the “cyperstructure” had collapsed. This was a landmark that I had heard of many times in the traffic reports but never paid any attention to. I had no idea where it was. It was only a couple of days later that I discovered that I had been mishearing the term all along and they meant the Cypress Structure on the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland. When I first heard the reports I thought they were talking about the section of freeway in San Francisco near the Hall of Justice on the approach to the Bay Bridge. It was kind of eerie listening to that first report, given from a helicopter overhead. The top of the roadway had collapsed onto the bottom. Cars had fallen off onto the city streets below. People were crawling over the wreckage. I drove home slowly and nervously.
All the lights were out until I came over the hill to Linda Mar, in Pacifica. Only there was there still power. I didn’t know what to expect when I drove up to the house. Was everybody OK? Would the house be damaged? I walked in the front door to find that everybody was fine. The lights were on but the television cable was out so Liz was in the kitchen washing dishes listening to the radio tell about the quake. Soon after I got home there was a report on the radio that part of the Bay Bridge had collapsed. I imagined it falling into the water with rush hour traffic on it. “Oh no,” I thought, “things just seem to be getting worse and worse.” Later it turned out that it was part of the upper deck that fell, blocking the lower deck.
The phone was out and I didn’t want to keep trying it for fear of tying up lines needed for emergencies. We were surprised later in the evening to get a call from Liz’s Dad. He had been at the baseball game and had taken hours to get home. He was fine but hadn’t been able to reach anybody else. It took a couple of days to finally establish contact with everybody and make sure that they were OK. It turned out to be easier to call Colorado than to make local calls, so I communicated with the people I couldn’t reach through my sister in Boulder.
When I finally reached my parents they reported that their house had lost a lot of plaster, things had fallen off the shelves and they generally had quite a mess. They live in Stanford, much closer to the epicenter than Pacifica. They reported that dishes fell off of a shelf and crashed onto the counter directly below. The house must have shifted back under them while they were in the air! The TV fell off of its stand, but didn’t break. They took a while to get cleaned up but had no major damage, luckily. When I reached my brother in Los Angeles we were cut off in mid call.
Liz reported that when the quake hit she gathered all the kids together in the hall to ride it out. Some of the kids were scared. Jenny thought that somebody was shaking her from behind at first. For months afterwards Robbie, who was two at the time, kept saying that he didn’t want there to be an earthquake. One pot fell over in the kitchen but there was no damage to the house. When I got home some of the day care kids were still there because their mom had been delayed. We had to keep reassuring them that she was just delayed and would come. Finally she called. It turned out that she had been in downtown San Francisco at the time and had had a hard time getting back out here. Another friend spent most of the night getting back from Oakland. We had to turn off the radio because it seemed to be scaring the kids. To tell the truth it scared me too. But we turned it back on after they were asleep.
Later on in the evening we realized that we could get some TV reception without the cable so we turned it on and saw very fuzzy pictures of the Marina in ruins. For the next few days the television showed pictures of the few areas that suffered heavy damage constantly, but did not show the areas that were not damaged. I resented the media stars such as Geraldo and Tom Brokaw that descended on the Bay Area to capitalize on the suffering.
I was not sure whether to go to work the next day. The radio said not to but I had seen that there was no damage to the areas I would have to drive through. I knew that the roads I took were not congested and were open. I also knew that it was a critical time for the payroll, there was a lot of work to do to make sure that everybody got paid on time. I called early in the morning, and much to my surprise I got through and Jack, my boss, answered the phone. He said that the computer had been able to process the payroll and that if I could make it I should come in. Liz didn’t want me to go, but I thought that I should go since I was needed at work. I also thought that it was important to reestablish a normal routine rather than dwelling on the earthquake.
Most people did show up. My office was completely undamaged, but the offices down the hall were closed because files had tipped over and light fixtures had fallen. I got in rather late because it took longer than normal to get out of the house. We spent a lot of time talking about the earthquake, but we also worked. One woman was banged up pretty badly when she fell down the stairs. Months later she still wasn’t working full-time. We got the payroll out on schedule.
I was also attending night school at Golden Gate University, downtown. The school was closed for about a week. When I got back I discovered that the old wing of that building was closed. Months later it was still blocked off. The buildings on either side were also badly damaged and at least one of them was eventually torn down. The building across Mission Street was closed for a time too. I was nervous going down there but I wasn’t about to quit school because of it so I went. Coming home at night I couldn’t use 280, as I had previously, because it was shut down. Instead I got onto Bayshore at 4th Street. This was the first exit that was open this side of the bridge. It was a strange feeling to get up on the freeway and have nobody else coming down the road. Things like that kept the earthquake fresh in my mind for a long time.
After the Bay Bridge opened it was still months before either Liz or I wanted to go across. In the best of times I have been uncomfortable on that bridge because of the narrow lanes and sheer volume of traffic. When we did finally take a trip that required us to go across, I looked for the section that had fallen and breathed a sigh of relief when we finally got across. I’m not saying that such fears are rational, but I think that they were not uncommon.
Around my work there were a number of houses that showed some damage, from cracks in the plaster to fallen chimneys. The yellow tape that the police put up around each damaged building and the signs certifying buildings safe or not from the public works department were a lot more dramatic than the actual damage in most cases.
All in all I was lucky in the earthquake, having suffered no actual damage at all. There was, however, an emotional toll that took some months to go away, maybe it never will. It all seems so unreal to me to be in the middle of a disaster and yet not really affected. This one was not so large. Next time is liable to be much worse. I am not looking forward to it.
By Dan Goldstein
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