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All Shook Up…Twenty Years Ago Today

Posted by Tony & Cheri on October 17, 2009

Twenty years ago today, the two of us stood in the middle of the Loma Prieta Earthquake, the second largest earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area history. Here are our memories of that day.

~ Cheri ~
I can remember October 17, 1989 as clearly today as I did two decades ago. Twenty years ago today, at 5:04 pm, I had just left my job at a law firm in downtown Oakland, California. I was armed with my little portable TV and all my softball gear. The plan was to meet Tony for a drink at our favorite watering hole in downtown Oakland to watch the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s. Then I was going to go on to my late softball game in Oakland (with the TV in tow so as not to miss any of the Series), catching a ride back to San Francisco with my brother afterwards, and Tony was going to go home. This was the first ever World Series between the two Bay Area baseball teams, and we, like most everyone else, didn’t want to miss it, so Tony left work early to save us some bar stools.

Fallen debris crushes a carI first heard glass breaking. My eyes followed the sound, and I saw panes of glass crashing onto the ground and others falling from the fifth or sixth floor of the large brick building I had just walked past. I jumped into the street and off the sidewalk to get further away from the building and the falling glass. What was going on?!? I looked at the little deli across the street, and the small sign in the window was swaying violently from side to side. I knew then that not only was this an earthquake, but it was by far the biggest one I had ever felt. I looked back at the brick building and saw it actually slither like a snake, only vertically. I was sure it was about to come down. Bricks started falling onto the street. I looked quickly to see if there were any people would be hurt by the falling debris, but the streets were amazingly clear for 5 pm. No one seemed to be on their regular schedules that day because of the baseball game. A guy on the street nearby yelled, “Earthquake!” and ran to hold onto a utility pole. I ran over and held on with him. The street I was standing on rolled like a magic carpet, rising about three feet up before coming back down again. That’s a sight I had never seen before or since.

When the shaking stopped, I just stood there, stunned. There was broken glass and bricks everywhere, and portions of the streets were cracked. I figured I’d better go to the bar and meet Tony, since he was waiting for me. I had no idea the extent of the damage, but I knew it had been a big one.

I got to Roy’s, but Tony wasn’t there. Roy, the bartender, said that Tony had been there during the earthquake but had rushed back to San Francisco to pick up his son from school. I sat down next to Tony’s Jack Daniel’s, ordered a margarita, and turned on the little TV. At that point the electricity was out, so everyone crowded around the tiny screen to get a glimpse of the news. The first news I heard was that the Bay Bridge had collapsed! OMIGOD!! I had a vision of the bridge falling into the water that I just couldn’t shake. Since the Bay Bridge is the only direct way to get from Oakland to San Francisco, I figured eventually Tony would come back to the bar to figure out what to do next. This was before cell phones, so we had no way to reach each other. I sat down and waited with the other people at Roy’s, our eyes glued to the little TV for news of how strong the quake had been and what other damage there was. Was this “the big one?” Everyone was clearly shaken by the experience. I know I sure was.

~ Tony ~
Twenty years ago today I snuck out of work early. The San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s were playing in the World Series in San Francisco. Knowing that getting back into San Francisco across the Bay Bridge back was going to be impossible for a couple of hours, Cheri and I agreed to go to a local bar near where we worked to watch the game and wait out the traffic.

The collapsed Cypress Structure between Oakland and San FranciscoThe game was supposed to start around 5pm, and so I went down early to grab us a couple of seats at the bar in front of the TV. By the time I got to Roy’s, there were seven or eight people already there with the same idea. I sat down and ordered a Jack Daniel’s and began to watch the pregame show while waiting for Cheri. Suddenly the TV screens went blank. Everyone in the place assumed it was Roy’s TV and began to groan loudly and yell complaints. Then the quake hit us.

The bottles and glasses behind the bar suddenly came flying off. People were knocked off their feet and off their chairs as the floor seemed to tilt one way and then the next.

When you live in earthquake country, it becomes second nature how to react. You get into a reinforced doorway or under a table. Within a few seconds, all of us in the bar were scrambling to fill the small doorway that led into Roy’s from the street. We must have looked like a circus pyramid group climbing on top of each other to find space in the doorway. As I clung to the moving wall of Roy’s bar, I looked out onto a terrifying panorama. The buildings around us swayed to and fro, and with every movement sent bricks, concrete and glass crashing into the street and onto the parked cars. For a moment, I really thought that my life might end there. Then after a few second that literally seemed like an eternity (they always say that, and it’s true), the quake ended. There was an amazing stunned silence broken only by car alarms.

As we untangled ourselves from the doorway, my first thought was of my son, Chris, who was in day care back in San Francisco. I had no idea how great the damage was over there, whether he was in danger, or whether his mother would be able to find him and get to him. I told Roy to tell Cheri that I had left for San Francisco to find Chris. I jumped in the car but had only gone a few blocks when the car radio announced that a section of the Bay Bridge had collapsed. A few minutes later the radio also said that a large portion of the Cypress freeway (the freeway I would have taken to go home if I hadn’t stopped to watch the game) had also collapsed, crushing and pinning numerous cars beneath it. There was no way to get back across to San Francisco. I turned the car around, driving through rubble in the streets, and returned to Roy’s. When I walked in the door, I saw Cheri, pale and a little shaky, sipping a margarita at the bar.

~ Tony & Cheri ~
After exchanging stories of where we were and what happened during the quake, we agreed that our first priority was finding a phone and checking on Chris. None of the phones in the bar worked (remember, this was pre-cell phone), so we took off down the street. We each took a side of the street and began knocking on doors, stepping over broken glass and concrete as we went. We knocked on every door and asked at every storefront if they had a working phone we could use. Eventually someone said yes. Through some electronic miracle, we were able to connect across the Bay to San Francisco and find out that Chris was fine, there had been no damage to his school and that his mother had arrived there a few minutes after the quake. They were both safe and sound at home. We checked in with Cheri’s mom and other family members who lived in San Francisco and the East Bay and made sure they were all fine.

Earthquake damage in the Marina district of San FranciscoHaving found out that the family had survived, we went back to Roy’s for another drink. It seemed like the thing to do. Roy was still sweeping up glass and replacing bottles but took time to give us another round. We didn’t stay long as it was beginning to get dark and there was no electricity. We wanted to go back to San Francisco but didn’t know how to do it. The Bay Bridge was closed, so no traffic could cross it and BART, the underground railway, was closed in case the tunnel beneath the bay had been damaged. Probably the safest thing to do would have been to spend the night in Oakland somewhere, but we both just wanted to go home to San Francisco.

Part of the problem was that we couldn’t get good information. We decided we’d drive around and see if we could find any part of Oakland that still had electricity, so we could find out what was happening. We ended up in a small section of the city called Rockridge and to our relief and delight found the main street, College Avenue, had power. We went into a small restaurant called the Rockridge Café (which is still there and still serves great food) and found a table. We joined a lot of other “refugees” watching the news on the café’s TV. It was pretty scary. The videos of the collapsed freeway, the damage to the Bay Bridge and the fires that had broken out in the Marina district of San Francisco (where the damage was the worst) were horrifying. The city was badly damaged, and in a strange way it made us want to get home even more.

Eventually a news report said there was a way back into San Francisco. The northernmost bridge across the bay, the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, was open. So was the Golden Gate Bridge. We could get home by driving over to Marin and then south across the Golden Gate into San Francisco. The only problem was that no one knew if the bridges were damaged or not. There were no lights on the bridges, and emergency teams were so busy in San Francisco that there was no one to inspect them for damage. People were being warned that they could use the bridges but at their own risk.

We talked about it for a few minutes and both felt the same way. We wanted to go home. It was worth the risk.

We drove slowly across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. There were a few other cars, all of us driving slowly, wondering if at any minute the bottom of the bridge would fall out beneath us. Luckily it didn’t. 🙂 Once across, we headed south over the Golden Gate Bridge.

Fires in San Francisco after the earthquakeIf you’ve ever driven across the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco, you know it’s a spectacular sight, even at night. The lights of the buildings lining the rolling hills make for a beautiful skyline. This night, we gazed in amazement at a San Francisco which was completely dark. No lights were to be seen. The hills looked like giant shadows against the night sky. As we headed across the bridge, Cheri commented that there was a huge fog bank on the bridge ahead of us. As we drove into it, we realized it wasn’t fog, it was smoke from the fires that had broken out from ruptured gas lines in San Francisco.

We drove slowly through the smoke and into the City. The streets were deserted, with electric buses stopped dead in the middle of intersections. There were no people or cars on the street except for the occasional police or emergency vehicle. The only lights we saw came from candles in people’s apartments and houses. It was sad and it was frightening, but at least we had gotten home safely.

The next day the City started its recovery. Everyone had a story. Friends who had been downtown had to walk several miles back to their homes in the surrounding areas. There were no buses, no BART, no way to get there other than to walk. In true San Francisco style, however, the pain of the hike was lessened as bars along the main streets, having no electricity to keep their beer cold, were handing out free drinks to passersby. Most of the City was without electricity for several days, and the downtown business area was virtually closed. The City was forced to slow down, and it gave all of us a chance to look around us and once again appreciate where we lived.

In the weeks that followed, life slowly began to return to normal. However, for several weeks there was no way to get to the East Bay and back again except by ferry boat. We would take a ferry in the morning, drift across the bay to our jobs in Oakland and return in the evening. It was a slower, much more inconvenient way of rush hour travel, but in the end we actually came to love it. We were almost disappointed when the Bay Bridge reopened and we could drive to work again.

Of course, as with the first great San Francisco earthquake, out of the ashes came new beauty. The ugly old freeway that had lined the waterfront had to be torn down. The empty warehouses and rotting piers gave way to palm lined boulevards, restaurants, stores and new apartments. The Embarcadero, the area along the waterfront, is now one of the prettiest and most vibrant sections of the City (and is now home to San Francisco’s new ballpark).

Our beautiful city by the baySan Francisco has had more than its fair share of tragedies–from the 1906 earthquake to Jonestown to the murders of Harvey Milk and George Moscone to the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake to the AIDS epidemic. The people of the Bay Area have had a lot of heartaches. They mourn and remember those who were lost in the Loma Prieta earthquake but also take pride in their rebuilding and survival.

San Francisco may sit on the shaky edge of the continent, but its inhabitants have long ago figured out that the pleasure is worth the pain. And they long ago realized it’s better to dance than to cry.

We may live in Mexico, but today our hearts are in San Francisco, which is still and always will be our home.

7 Responses to “All Shook Up…Twenty Years Ago Today”

  1. Tim & Ruth said

    Brother, you should submit this to the Chronicle, or to SF…

  2. Rob Brown said

    I remember that day. I was working at a hardware store in Concord, Ca. When the earthquake hit, the lights starting swaying like a typical earthquake then WHAM, the lights swayed violently. The floor started rippling like water. At that point I knew this wasn’t a typical quake and we headed outside. The parking lot looked like water with the lighter cars bouncing around. One older person was yelling “it’s the big one”.

    When the quake was over we started making bets on the magnitude. We huddled around a radio while customers started buying up batteries. The first report was that the Cypruss structure collapsed. I didn’t know the freeway by that name, we thought it was a building under construction. LIttle did we know the impact of that collapse. One of our co-workers fiance died in that collapse.

    The next report was the bay bridge had collapsed. The way the initial reports were made, it sounded like it was a total collapse. Fortunately, just the one section.

    It was an intense day, for sure. The next day, a friend of mine and I went down to Oakland to see if they needed help. Early reports were they were looking for people with trucks to drive in water. We weren’t needed, so we walked the entire length of the collapsed section of the freeway. Images on TV cannot convey the sheer size of the damage done to that freeway.

    We’re lucky the earthquake didn’t happen closer to SF.

  3. Bren Orzen said

    What a day that must have been worrying how to get to your son and how to get home…I have only been in a few small earthquakes here in Vancouver….nothing like what you have experienced but we should always be prepared. So glad nothing happened to you guys or there would be no Luna Blue and no wonderful friends in Mexico to visit every year.

  4. Ron Fong said

    I’ve never been through something like that myself but I can just imagine the emotional scars it
    leaves …. not knowing about the safety of your loved ones would be the biggest thing on my mind. And to know that you are one of the lucky ones that survived to tell about it where others perished makes you realize how short and precious life really is … and that it can be over in a heartbeat ….

  5. Louise said

    Dearest Tony & Cheri,

    Most important, I want to tell you how much we love you.

    We have never experienced anything so earthly terrific and horrific as you have back then. But let me tell you… I am still wiping tears from my eyes as I am writing this comment to you. I had no idea that you two went through so much! No wonder that you can weather the storms in your daily life, so well. You have lived through one of the ‘big ones’ and I hope & pray that whatever comes your way, you will be strong and wise enough to ‘weather’ it. I know you will. Your love of life (and for everything & everybody else) will always carry you though. 🙂

    ‘Little’ Chris is now ‘big’ Chris, today. :):):) Thank God, eh? 🙂 I hope that you will tell him the story of Oct. 17, 1989. How he was your main concern on that day.

    I am so glad and grateful that you both got home safely that day.

    Much love & hugs,
    Louise xoxoxo

  6. Leslie said

    So glad that things ended up well for you and your’s! A lot of us would really have missed out if we had never gotten to meet you two! I live in Tornado world, so can relate some. Although we get warning, any disaster is a disaster. Will see you guys the 1st of November. Not staying at your place, although have in the past. But will be there for drinks for sure….

  7. Michelle said

    I remember that day. I remember the World Series and just all of the commotion that followed after the quake. We were glued to the TV. My mom’s biggest concern was her family…all of whom live throughout California. But, it was her sister, my Aunt, who was on my Mom’s mind the most. They live in San Ramon and commute into the city. Come to find out that my Aunt had just gotten across the Oakland Bay Bridge not long before it collapsed.

    I’ve been to San Francisco only once and the long weekend I was there was not enough to take in all of the city’s glory.

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