The 1989 Loma Prieta Quake

I wrote this on the cold and rainy Monday after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake which took more than 60 lives and caused so much damage.

The destruction, while not general, is nevertheless staggering; the human character, while not perfect, is certainly inspiring. It is probably the single most indelible memory of a one minute interval that I’ll ever record. No description can hope to do justice to the experience, but after the passage of a week, I find myself unable to refrain from putting pen to paper. Thus I write, albeit impersonally, by means of my electronic livelihood.

The earthquake was, I’m sure, the longest minute of my life. It truly seemed to last hours. One hears that at such moments time crawls, but this was undoubtably the most vivid proof of that aphorism that I have personally experienced. Etched in my memory is the sequence in which the stages of recognition washed over peoples’ faces as the event unfolded. What was more striking in many ways, was the coolness and aplomb with which people behaved after the minute had passed. I am sure that I will never forget a detail of that afternoon.

We had just gathered for a general staff meeting. The atmosphere was festive since pizza and soft drinks had been provided. The meeting was to start at 5:00, and we were just getting settled in for an unremarkable hour or so.

Personally, however, I was peeved at having to attend the meeting. I had planned on driving up to Berkeley to attend an early evening meeting there, and I had hoped to leave work about half an hour early so that I could arrive at my Berkeley meeting in time. It is worth noting, ye students of fate and the possible, that such a plan, had it been carried out, would have put me somewhere on the Oakland stretch of the Nimitz freeway when the quake struck. I mightn’t have been in the Cypress section, but it would have been very inconvenient to say the least, and much more distressing, too. Needless to say, I have offered prayers of thanks for my good fortune.

When the quake hit we had just settled into our seats. The first motion was such that most people felt that some big truck was driving by just too fast. A second or two later, it became apparent that it was an earthquake, but, hey, no big deal – we get ’em all the time. Almost simultaneously, the wave of recognition hit everyone: this was not dying down; it was getting stronger! Without a trace of panic, though with undeniable urgency, Sue Finnegan slapped her hand on a table top and said, “Drop!” No one hesitated. Someone warned people to turn away from the glass, but again, voices were measured and controlled if not entirely calm. Years of training in school paid off; programmed reaction overrode panic. Some folks were laughing, some were silent. I kept repeating, “Holy Mother of God!” That’s never been an expletive of mine, but I guess it just seemed apt at the time. I stared obsessed at my wristwatch while I was underneath the table. We were down there for just under fifty seconds, and some few seconds had passed before we had ducked.

The ground felt as if it was heaving and pitching like a raft on a turbulent river. The noise was probably nowhere near as loud as it seemed at the time, but it was terrible. The sound of an entire building shaking and rumbling is simply too abnormal to be measured in any impartial manner. Trains roaring past rickety frame houses on nearby tracks cannot come close to recreating the noise. I have heard other quakes rattle houses and buildings, but no structure ever sounded like this. It added to the fearsomeness of the event. At some point the lights flashed and then failed completely, which emphasized the ominous sensation. It seemed surprising that no pieces of ceiling fell on us and that no windows broke. As powerful as the quake was, the building was equal to the test. We are all grateful.

After several lifetimes, when the shaking subsided – it didn’t really stop entirely for several more seconds – folks picked themselves up and hurried outside. No one panicked, but we were moving with great purpose.

Immediately everyone knew that this one was bigger than any we had been through before. Many of us had been in Los Angeles for the 1971 quake, and, frankly, with or without a degree in seismology, we were sure that this one was much stronger. I was absolutely convinced that somewhere in the Bay Area buildings were falling and people were dying. It was a very morose feeling. In fact, it surprised me to see that the old freeway overpass outside was still standing. Its vintage is such that I really expected to see it collapsed in a heap of rubble. Many people headed directly for home thus creating the greatest traffic jam I have yet seen here. Several others of us decided to sit and wait it out. Very soon news reports began filtering to us from the passing vehicles. At 5:03 the impending World Series seemed terribly important. At 5:05 it was entirely forgotten. (Since then it hasn’t really crossed my mind.) As the enormity of the quake’s impact was verified, the mood grew more somber still. After about an hour and a half, it seemed time to head home to whatever awaited. With no power and uncertain telephones, it was sure to be a long, anxious evening. And it was, it was.

The actual event itself was nearly terrifying. I hadn’t realized the truth of this seemingly obvious observation until late Friday afternoon. Having survived dozens of other earthquakes, even some rather severe ones such as that Los Angeles quake in 1971, I have come to see myself as a fairly cool and unflappable old hand at tremors and shakes. But one learns something about one’s self at times like these, and I have found that in response to this quake I am still about as nervous as a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. It took until last Friday for this to dawn on me because I hadn’t really quite gotten into a normal pattern of activity before then. And the revealing event was one of the countless aftershocks that we’d been feeling for the last several days. This particular one hit about 5:00 Friday evening. We were all proud of the way in which we had adapted to the upheavals of the week and we were pleased with our successful completion of a very unusual class week. We had endured well, and with few complaints; after all, we had survived intact and unharmed. But all of us were acutely aware of the tremors and rumbles that had made our familiar terra firma anything but for the last few days. We were finally trying to wind down from the week’s demands when this insignificant little tremor rolled through. Suddenly is was just too much; it wasn’t strong enough to be scary, but boy was it irritating! Like being within earshot of a kid who has an unknown number of balloons to pop at random, it’s not so much that each actual event is unbearable, it’s just that you wish like hell it would stop! Several of us who were sitting in the office at the time suddenly felt a compelling desire to express variations on this thought at the same time. We all came to realize that we were quite edgy and unsettled, and, as of today, we all still are. Each small tremor or rattle gives rise to some slight but palpable anxiety; sleep is still hard to come by. Yet life goes on.

It’s been a week for reflection and reassessment. Today it has been raining and gusting quite hard and unseasonably cold, almost as if to remind us all that we are being put to the test. Somehow, though, it seems that we are coming through as needed. Times have gotten tough, and the people have responded in kind. The news has been a relentless barrage of stories of grave misfortunes and great courage. The unhelpful wind shut down the rescue operation in Oakland Friday night, but the very next day a survivor was pulled from the debris. The Monday morning traffic was not terrible as anticipated. People seemed to have a great deal of patience. Of course, it isn’t as if it came as a surprise to anyone. Yet it is very encouraging and pleasing to take account of how people have behaved in this most stressing of challenges.

San Francisco is a pretty city, her splendid setting having been formed by the very geological cataclysms which threaten her. She is also a very gritty and determined city. Indeed, this observation certainly applies to the Bay Area as whole. Every community has been tried, and none has been found wanting. I think that this, in large measure, can be attributed to the training which Californians have in coping with earthquakes, but, too, an undeniable portion of the action may be inspired by the very lofty and mythic legends of courage and toughness among our forebearers from 1906. The stories and legends that have sprung up about “The Big One” are part of everyone’s consciousness in the Bay Area. The heroes of ’06 left very large shoes to fill. I honestly think that in 1989, we have found that those shoes fit us modern folk quite well. It’s a good feeling, and good to know as we face a future that will be permanently affected by that one minute on an absolutely perfect October afternoon.

Jamie Rawson
Monday, 23 October 1989
San Francisco, California

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s