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An oral history of Loma Prieta

Started: 2018-05-25 19:59:10

Submitted: 2018-05-25 22:02:42

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator recounts his experience in the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989

On the evening of October 17, 1989, I was at home in suburban Redwood City. I was nine years old — the age Calvin is now. I was watching children's television, probably Sesame Street, with my not-quite-seven-year-old sister Bethany. My three-year-old brother Willy was playing somewhere nearby.

At 17:04 the ground started shaking, and I immediately recognized it as an earthquake. As a life-long California resident, growing up under the constant threat of earthquakes, I had been trained to duck under a table or desk any time I felt an earthquake. I grabbed Bethany and hurried across the room to the table where the TV was sitting, and crawled under the table to wait for the end of the earthquake.

Willy was playing nearby when the earthquake hit. He was not old enough to have received earthquake drills, and stood in the middle of the room, legs outstretched to stay upright on the shaking ground, saying something like "What are it?" or "What are happening?" My mother was in the kitchen cooking dinner, and staggered out into the family room to rescue Willy, then sought shelter in the nearest door frame.

Once the ground stopped shaking I crawled out from under the table. It was the biggest earthquake I'd felt, though I didn't really know quite how big it was. The power had gone out during the quake, but it was still light enough that we could see to gather flashlights and candles. We surveyed the house for damage and found only a broken empty canning jar, which had fallen off its shelf. One of the doors in the house was no longer stuck. I went outside in the twilight and noted how quiet it was — and how weird it was that none of the lights were on.

My mother had been cooking curry before the earthquake hit, starting with sweet potatoes. The sweet potatoes were the only thing that was cooking when the power went out, and the pan retained enough residual heat to continue cooking the sweet potatoes. This formed the basis of our dinner, which we ate by candlelight on our dining table.

I remember reading one of the Chronicles of Narnia books — I think it was The Silver Chair — by flashlight before going to bed. I woke up in the middle of the night when the power came back on, then turned off the lights and went back to sleep.

My father was in a conference room in the 34-story PG&E building in Soma (downtown San Francisco) when the earthquake hit. After the quake, he looked out the window and saw a construction crane swaying back and forth, eventually slowing to the point where the crane operator climbed out of the cab at the top of the crane and began the long climb down to solid ground. (I heard this story for years before moving back to San Francisco. My father pointed to the buildings on the 100 block of Spear Street — building I walk by every day on my way to the office — and thought one of those was where he had seen the crane.)

Normally my father took Caltrain home from the San Francisco terminus at Fourth and King to Redwood City, but the trains were canceled following the earthquake for seismic inspection. He joined the crowd milling about in the street in front of the station, trying to figure out how they were going to get home, when a tour bus driver pulled up and announced that he was going to drive down the peninsula on El Camino Real (the main surface street running between San Francisco and San Jose) for an up-front cash fare. My father boarded and ended up arriving home quite late.

The next day was Wednesday, which would normally have been a school day, but school was canceled following the earthquake. I watched the TV news and got my first view of the damage of the earthquake: I saw the collapsed section of the Bay Bridge (a bridge I'd driven on multiple times before — and would continue to drive on multiple times after it was repaired), the collapsed double-decker freeway in Oakland (reminding me of the double-decker elevated freeway section of I-280 entering San Francisco), and the pancaked soft-story garages in the Marina and the fires that followed. The earthquake's magnitude was downgraded to 6.9, still a respectable earthquake (and the largest earthquake I've experienced).

For me, life returned to normal the next day as I went back to school, having experienced a major news event first-hand (along with the rest of the Bay Area).