Thursday, April 26, 2018

Loma Prieta

 5:10 PM Tuesday, October 17, 1989

When I got out to the street, it was almost dark.  There were many sirens, yet on the street it was quiet as well dressed men and women pushed out of the brass trimmed office doors on to New Montgomery Street. A few emergency lights were burning.  The street was oddly sparkling. I knelt down to try to see what was there. 

“Excuse me! Watch it buddy”, someone shoved me from behind.
I was crouching down in the middle of the street.  It touched it. It was broken glass. The street was covered with broken chards of glass. My steps made an ominous crunching sound as I carefully stepped back to the sidewalk.

The sirens began to become louder and continuous.  As one siren passed another would begin. Where were they headed? Was there a fire?

I felt my jacket pockets. I had my wallet.  I had my little transistor radio. I knew I was wearing some threadbare canvas shoes. I was afraid of stepping on the glass. Near me a woman had taken off her high heels. She was bleeding. 

I looked around for fire, but didn’t see any. All I could smell was tobacco smoke.  The early evening fog was turning to a heavy mist. It felt like rain.  I pulled up the hood on my jacket.

 Behind me, the drug store windows were caved in and people were reaching in and climbing in through windows.

They have batteries.”

I was in a canyon of buildings at the edge of the San Francisco financial district.

5 minutes earlier, I had been sitting at my desk 8 floors above the street.  It was the end of the workday.  I was getting ready to go home. Many people had already left. The World Series was about to begin at Giants Stadium.

When the earthquake started, I heard the familiar rattle of window glass. I had been through many smaller quakes and I knew the sound.  I chortled to myself. My mom would be calling.

“Its ok Mom, it was just a little one”, I would say.

But this quake was not stopping.  I tried to stand up, but could not. My desk chair was wildly rolling about on my linoleum office floor. I kept trying but I could not stand up.
I fell to the floor and crawled and rolled over to a window.  I watched the conjoined brick buildings across the street begin to sway. I could see daylight as the two red brick buildings swayed apart.  That sight from my window triggered the fear.

I saw my own death. In my brief thought, I saw the floor open as I fell, descending 8 stories into a pile of debris.  My mind played that little dramatic film.  I stopped the movie in my mind.  I realized  I had never imagined dying.
When the lights first went out, the emergency lights did not come on.  As I continued to look out the window, I heard my co-workers begin to leave.
“Lets get out! Come on! Lets go.”
“Why is it dark?”

I pulled myself along a wall towards the door. We all wanted to get out. We wanted to get to the stairs, to the dark stairwell, to the street.
“Where is Carol?”  “Where is Jimmy?”
“They are at the baseball game.”
“Watch out on the stairs.” “I can’t see!”  “Doesn’t anybody have a flashlight?”

The stairwell was littered with ceiling tiles and covered with white plaster dust.  No one had a flashlight. There was no yelling. There was no  crying.  There were 8 floors to descend.

No  cell phones.
No pay phones. 
The trains under the bay had all halted. 
When people hit the street they all began to talk about it.  

“There are no buses. I guess I’ll walk home”
“The trollies have stopped.
“I came in on the BART train. How will I get home? They will not be running under the bay.”

I overhead a stranger, “Let’s run over to the bus terminal. Maybe we can get a ride across the bay to Berkeley.”
I began to jog the 10 blocks to the bus terminal.  To my surprise and delight there were busses running.  Long lines snaked out of the building and the busses were quickly loading up.  I jumped on.

My Berkeley bound bus left the terminal and began to slowly move through traffic as it climbed up to the Bay Bridge. We drove up a ramp and onto the bridge and into the bus lane. The bus stopped dead.  As we idled in a mass of vehicles, several passengers closed the bus windows to stop the diesel smoke and noise.  We sat in our orderly rows awaiting movement forward.

I had a seat, many others were standing.

I turned on my little FM transistor radio.  I listened for news with my earphones .  The whole city was dark, but we passengers could see a fierce red glow coming from the Marina District. That was the fire..  The fog over the Marina turned red.  The towering buildings were black. Instead of a setting sun, the Marina glowed. We starred like tourists. Everyone was silent.

My radio spoke. 
“In the East Bay e a portion of the Nimitz free has collapsed. Many cars have been crushed.”

I tried to reassure myself, my calm self said: “I’m on a bus and I’ll be home eventually.”
Suddenly the radio announcer interrupted the disaster litany to say:
“A span of the Bay Bridge has collapsed. Drivers are injured and trapped. ” 

I stood up at my seat and spoke loudly to the strangers on the quiet bus.
“Part of the bridge has collapsed.”
At that moment, we were all sitting far above the city on the Bay Bridge.. Beneath us was water.

A stranger turned to look at me. His face was twisted with disdain.
“Oh you are so stupid!  This bridge would never fall!”
Others muttered their agreement.
Stupid asshole! Shut up!

I sat down, confused.  Was that just a rumor? It sounded real to me.

Suddenly, the driver opened the bus door. The driver got off. We all looked ahead through the driver’s window and saw hundreds of people abandoning their cars and running straight for us and down the on-ramp to get off of the bridge.
I thought, “This is just like a science fiction movie. Everyone is fleeing the monster.”

I left the bus with all of the passengers. I walked along the Embarcadero which borders the San Francisco Bay.  I had been to the ATM that day and had some cash in my pocket. I thought, “maybe I can catch a boat across the bay. I want to go home.”

I walked and ran along to bay to the fisherman’s wharf area. As it turned out, the city had a well functioning evacuation scheme working with multiple ferryboats taking loads of people across the bay. Within 15 minutes, I was on board and headed to Oakland. 

Thousands of people were waiting for the boats.  Grateful to be a big tall man, I moved my way to the front of the confused crowd.  I was bigger than most people. 
“Excuse me.”
Excuse me”
It worked. There was no queuing just polite, huge group. I shuffled my big body through to the boat.

Like tourists, we crowded the stern as the ferry pulled away toward Oakland.
It was now night.
A few lights were on the mostly darkened buildings.  Typically we would all look at the Golden Gate Bridge, but tonight we focused on the fire in the Marina. 

A television inside the Ferry told us what had happened to us:
The TV reports looped continuously

Monday, October 13, 2014
On October 17, 1989, at 5:04 PM a 6.9 magnitude earthquake ripped through the Bay Area. It was 15 chilling seconds …

It was Game 3 of the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics. The pre-game show had just begun. When suddenly, something went wrong.

The Bay Area shook for 15 seconds. But it was hours before we realized the huge extent of the damage. Power and phone service was cut for much of the Bay Area. Radio and TV stations were knocked off the air.

On the television, a film clip was played over and over:
"That is the Cypress section of the Nimitz Freeway and you can see, oh my God, look at that, the freeway has just completely collapsed."

“The natural gas lines have ruptured and that is what's caused that fire. The water lines have ruptured. There is no water coming out of the hydrants."

But wait! My wife Sarah would be coming home on the Nimitz. She had to drive through the Cypress section that had just collapsed.  My mind raced.  I had no way to know where she was.  I looked at the TV.   I moved back inside the ferry to see the picture.  I got as close to the TV monitor as I could.  There were now horrible images of flattened cars with trapped motorists being rescued.  I tried to calm my breath.  I had to stay calm. Where was Sarah?

We all stared and watched the television as the ferry made the 45 minute trip across the bay. The images repeated over and over.  My own images repeated over and over. Where was Sarah?

In time, we docked and I walked down the gangplank.  Oakland like San Francisco had lost power.  I knew that the 6-mile walk from the Oakland harbor to our home in Berkeley was a long way.  I also knew that I would be walking through some rough neighborhoods. I was determined to get home to Sarah and the kids. There was no question. I would walk.

I knew the way. It was a straight road home. I again pulled up my hood as if it gave me some special security.  I began to walk as quickly as I could. Police barriers immediately blocked my path. Generators powered huge floodlights. The light showed the steel shell of a 12-story building under construction.  The girders had twisted by the earthquake. The building tilted menacingly over the road. 

I stopped at a pay phone to try and check on my family. Not even a dial tone. It was dead.

I detoured around the barriers and moved back onto the dark streets. I kept heading home. After a few miles, I left the downtown area. I noticed some busses began to pass me. I did not stop to wait. Sitting at a bus stop was not smart. The streetlights flickered but remained out.  Several blocks of run down buildings and bars were part of my gauntlet home.  Just as I had worried, and as if on queue, 3 men came out of a bar.
“Hey you!” “Watcha doin here.”
“Hey come over here.” “Hey, I’m talking to you.”
I said nothing, walked faster.
They laughed.  What fun they were having. They had frightened me.

I marched forward. Minutes later a brightly lit bus pulled up and stopped. I had not even waved at it. The driver opened the doors and commanded me, “Get in the Bus! Right now!”
I did. I was so grateful to be in a warm, safe, city bus.  It was like a great rescue ship.

I had nearly reached home.  I still did not know if everyone was safe.



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