Present at the Re-Creation: The Loma Prieta Earthquake

It was 30 years ago today. I was present at a World Series game between the Giants and the Oakland A’s. Then the earth shook.

A good reason to re-post this story of the Battle of the Bay, and Nature’s response. First published in The Berkeley Daily Planet, October 15, 2009

October 17, 1989, 5:09 pm
Section 51, Upper Deck
Candlestick Park, San Francisco

It’s in the drink, man! The Bay Bridge has fallen down!”

Uh oh, it’s going to take a while to get home tonight. The man in front of me with the radio pressed to his ear continues to relay news to the fans around us. We’re here for the third game of the World Series. Five minutes ago, the earth shook, and the crowd cheered. Now we start to realize the magnitude of what’s happened. And where the heck is Darrell?

It’s not easy getting tickets to this Series. The Oakland A’s are playing the San Francisco Giants, the first time our two local teams have each won their league championships in the same year. The national media has flocked to the City and dubbed this the Battle of the Bay, or the Bay Bridge Series, ironically it seems now.

Hours earlier, I drive to San Francisco from my home in the East Bay. The Bay Bridge is festooned with small, alternating, team-color pennants — black-and-orange for the Giants, green-and-yellow for the A’s. I pay a scalper $200 each for two tickets.

My buddy Darrell and I join the upbeat crowd flooding into the park, everyone thrilled by the novelty of having both local teams in the Series. In this famously windy and naturally air conditioned city, the air today is oddly still and quite warm, a condition known since the days of Aristotle as earthquake weather.

The A’s won the first two games in Oakland, but after the usual World Series “travel” day, the Giants, who play very well at home at Candlestick, have high hopes tonight. Most of the crowd wears A’s or Giants paraphernalia. As a bicoastal fan who roots for both teams (their stadia flank the coasts of San Francisco Bay), my loyalties are riven by their unusual dual success. I’ve decided to cheer for and wear the colors of whichever team is playing at home. So this day I wear a black-and-orange Giants cap. Little do we know, as we file into the stadium, that nature is poised to strike.

Darrell wanders off in search of a beer after we find our seats. A few minutes later, Candlestick starts to shake like crazy. I look around in astonishment during the 15 seconds of the temblor. Down below me on the field, a long mound of earth is rolling its way under the sod across the outfield from left to center, like a gigantic rolling pin gone mad underground. The grandstand to my right is rippling like a bedsheet on a windy day. Above me, the wind baffle, built years before in an attempt to control the notorious Candlestick weather, flaps around like cardboard.

The shaking stops. After a moment of astonished silence, the crowd breaks into a long, excited cheer. What better way to celebrate the Battle of the Bay than with a quake? What could be more appropriate, more San Francisco and Oakland? I look again at the wind baffle. Like the rest of the park, it’s made of reinforced concrete and appears undamaged. Clearly only massive, unimaginable force could cause it to flail around that way. Then we hear that the Bridge is in the drink, and I start to wonder if they’ll be playing a game tonight. A few people begin to leave, but I have to sit tight and wait for Darrell.

He returns eventually and tells me he was on the beer line when the quake struck. Everyone oohed and aahed and slipped and fell against each other, then cheered afterward. No one left the beer line. As he returned to the stands with his beer and my Diet Coke, he found himself looking up, wondering if some huge concrete arch was about to fall on him, when he bumped into someone and spilled both drinks.

The blimp and the news helicopter fleet that are here for the game fly off to the Bay Bridge. From our upper deck seats in center field, the lowering sun is in our eyes, so it takes a few minutes before we realize that the scoreboard and other signs are now off. The players and their families, far below us, have come out of the dugouts and stands onto the infield. Eventually a couple of police cars circumnavigate the field and, with their bullhorns, tell the crowd to go home. Though the earthquake damage at Candlestick is quite minimal, the park has lost power, and the game is postponed. I recall that I left my Betamax machine at home preset to start recording at 5 pm, so it should be immortalizing the quake and all this activity.

We walk back to my car. The entire City of San Francisco has lost power, and traffic is chaotic. It takes nearly three hours to get to the car and drive a mile to Darrell’s house. Telephone landlines are down, but my 1989 brick-class cell phone works, and eventually I reach my family. Everyone’s okay, but I’m stuck in the City for a while.

I hole up at Darrell’s as we listen to my car radio on a dark Potrero Hill street. The Bay Bridge has fallen down! That will certainly disrupt commerce and business in the entire region. I assess our situation. It could take a while for things to get back to normal. As a freelancer, I’m always wondering where my next job is coming from. But we have a little cash in the bank, some future work dates booked, a bit of money owed to us by clients. We can survive, unless it takes months, which would be a hardship. But nobody knows yet the scope of this disaster.

Around midnight I decide to head home. I can’t hop on the broken Bay Bridge, the short way to Oakland and points east, so I plan to drive the length of San Francisco north to the Golden Gate Bridge, then cruise home circuitously through Marin County via the Richmond Bridge. I leave Darrell’s and drive through empty back streets. It’s eerily dark and quiet in the neighborhoods. The City, usually bright and full of life, has a dead, creepy, Escape from New York feeling. I hear sirens in the distance and look forward to being at home and watching my recording of the earthquake.

The excitement level increases when I cross Market Street onto Van Ness, a major North-South artery. Though a few sections of the City have power, all the streetlights and traffic lights on my route are still out. Police direct traffic at some intersections, and others are completely uncontrolled and dangerous. But many corners have ordinary people out in the middle of the street trying to coordinate the flow of traffic, doing their best imitations of arm-waving traffic cops. In the face of our recent disaster, this spontaneous citizens’ self-mobilization has people smiling and waving at each other.

Eventually I get home and reunite with my family. The power is back on at our house. Once everything settles down, I check the Betamax, but the quake hit only moments after the machine turned itself on, the power went off at our house, and it never recorded the event.

The aftermath is oddly anticlimactic. Sadly, a few dozen people are killed in the quake, but not the hundreds or thousands anticipated immediately after it happened. It seems that in Northern California, instead of being at work or on the road commuting, most people were already home at 5 o’clock to watch the Battle of the Bay. They had thought it would just be a baseball game.

The news is generally less awful than everyone’s worst fears. Fires rage for a day and homes collapse in residential neighborhoods built on landfill in the Marina District in San Francisco, and downtown Santa Cruz, near the epicenter at Loma Prieta, loses dozens of buildings, but all with minimal loss of life and limb. Most neighborhoods are virtually untouched. About 50 people perish when a mile-and-a-half of double-decker freeway in Oakland called the Cypress Structure collapses. Tragic, only a tenth the number authorities estimate at first might be trapped in such a long stretch of road. Again, the early starting time of the Series saves lives. Things could be worse.

The Bay Bridge doesn’t actually fall into the drink.  One 50-foot section of upper-deck roadbed is dislodged by the quake and one end falls through onto the lower deck. Two cars drive into the hole, killing one person. Nothing actually hits the water. Certainly not the wholesale collapse of girders, cables, rebar, and concrete that I envisioned when I heard that it fell. Balancing this unsettling event is the news that damage is virtually nonexistent in modern buildings and skyscrapers built to sway and roll in earthquakes, as well as the entire BART train system, underground and under the Bay. BART rises to the challenge and adds trains to and from San Francisco. Ridership increases markedly.

But the Loma Prieta quake has a powerful emotional effect. A few people I know threaten to move back to Kentucky, or Florida, or wherever. I have too much time on my hands in the economic lull that follows, and my mood sours. Each time I take our pooch to the dog park, I find myself wondering how I’ll get back if another quake hits and the only road in is broken. I obsess about how I would have reacted if the quake had hit earlier in the day, when I was on the Bridge. I worry if our house and deck are sufficiently braced for another shaker.

I pine for my lost Betamax recording, as if my brain can’t accept and resolve what happened without my being able to replay it mechanically. I’m absorbed by earthquake news and nervewracked by each aftershock. I feel compelled to go see the fallen Cypress Structure and take the dog with me. She throws up in my car. I don’t want to talk to anyone. I’m depressed.

I’m not the only one. I see on the news that the earthquake has emotionally discombobulated lots of others. TV shrinks implore us all to seek help, to talk about what happened, to share our experiences with those around us. I pass my neighbor in the street and impulsively launch into a detailed description of the events at Candlestick, the rolling pin, the wind baffle, Darrell and the beer line, my drive across the City. She looks at me warily, then blurts out her story: She was at home when the quake struck, and ran down the stairs from her house to the street, watching the utility poles on our block whip back and forth like a cartoon, as the ground rolled and shook, an image I now have engrained in my memory as deeply as if I’d witnessed it myself. I wander down to the Burger Depot and order a turkey burger as I spill my story again to Dave, the owner. He tells me he was scared as the place shook and plates and glasses rattled off shelves around him.

Gradually I start to feel better. The whole region eventually gets back to normal. I take BART to the City a few times for work, which helps me feel less cut off. The World Series resumes after a ten-day delay. Darrell has to work, so I bring another friend along, and the A’s win the next two games to sweep the Series. Eventually, nearly a half million people claim to have been at Candlestick for the earthquake.

The Bay Bridge is out for exactly a month. The day before it opens to traffic, they plan a ribbon-cutting ceremony out on the Bridge, right at the repaired section, with the mayors of San Francisco and Oakland in attendance. When the State announces that the public will be allowed to walk out onto the Bridge — for the first time ever — to attend the ceremony, I feel that I must bear witness. Having been present at the disaster (I consider that attending the Earthquake Game at Candlestick has given me a very personal stake in this earthquake), I want to be present at the re-creation of the Bridge. I take my son out of first grade, impress upon him the historical importance of the occasion, and drag him along.

We drive to a parking lot in Emeryville, where we board buses with hundreds of others. They drop us just past the toll plaza and metering lights, and we all begin the long slow uphill trek. The break was in the very last roadway section before the girdered, Erector-Set superstructure. The mammoth size of the Bridge awes us as we tread where no mere mortals have gone before.

Razi starts out in a positive frame of mind as we walk. It’s a beautiful day, sunny and brisk. This section of the Bridge has a fresh coat of paint. State workers with hard hats stand every few feet, greet us with big smiles, and thank us for coming. The media swarm. The mood is festive.

A radio reporter interviews Razi, who tells her that his daddy assured him “the fixed part of the Bridge is now stronger than it was before the earthquake” and that “it’s important for us all to walk out here to show we know the bridge is safe again.”

But after a long walk, the novelty wears off, and reality sets in. Only four weeks ago, this old Bridge shook enough to break its massive concrete roadbed. He starts to get scared and wants to turn back. That’s okay with me. The bunting and crowds are visible up ahead, another five or ten minute walk. But I’ve had my moment of history. I’ve had my bridge walk. Who cares if we get to see some smelly old ceremony with a bunch of politicians? Betamax or no Betamax, new memories are replacing the old ones. We turn and trudge back to the buses. The healing is well under way.

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2 thoughts on “Present at the Re-Creation: The Loma Prieta Earthquake”

  1. This was a very riveting story and because you so vividly described what happened, I could picture it in my head. I too could actually see the utility poles whip back and forth in my head; just like you. Thanks for sharing.

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