I looked out the high-rise work window and saw a huge dust cloud and a freshly-fallen pile of bricks. Then a first floor plate glass window exploded.
This week is the anniversary, I’m celebrating survival and human resolve. That day, October 17, 1989, I was working in San Francisco’s Financial District. When the earthquake hit, the cubicle walls were rocking so violently there was nothing solid to guide me to the doorway. File cabinet drawers flew open, desktops emptied–so much screaming and shaking.
But is it really safe to go outside? The answer came quickly when I smelled fire inside the building.
I was sandwiched in a mob of shocked colleagues, doing our best to exit. But it was slow going for the hundreds of us, due to a bottleneck jam where a three foot wall medallion had crashed to the floor. We kept walking and made it to the sidewalk.
There were no cell phones then, and all electrical was down. All public transportation was unavailable. Emergency professionals were tending to gas leaks and fires. Glass, bricks, and heavy falling objects were a danger. Aftershocks and more crashing buildings were anticipated. Thousands of us wandered down the middle of Market Street. My partner and I were headed on foot to our neighborhood, several miles away.
After about a half hour, a natural order started to develop. It was odd, but it was order. There were a few homeless people directing traffic, for instance, and folks with pick-up trucks offered rides to anyone who wanted to hop on. (We did.)
At that point we only knew to get home, out of the chaos that was everywhere. Some people were calm, but some people were hysterical. Some blocks seemed safe, other blocks were rubble, the dust still rising. Soon it would be dark, and it would be best to be home…if there was still a home.
We did not know parts of the Bay Bridge and Nimitz Freeway had collapsed, people had been killed. We did not know the earthquake had interrupted the World Series and all the country knew. All we knew was what was in front of us.
That night there was not a spark of light across the entire city landscape. There was an occasional six inch glow from a battery-operated television on front steps, where we could get a glimpse of the news.
With each new day we all learned more as we talked in the long grocery lines, or to neighbors on the street. Everyone became neighbors as we shared news, worried about loved ones, considered alternatives. But then another aftershock would hit, and logic and plans were lost in the jolt.
Later they called it the Loma Prieta Earthquake. Measured 6.9 on the Richter scale. It would be weeks before the human toll was tallied at 63 deaths and 3,757 injuries; and years before all the buildings and bridges would be torn down or repaired.
Later I read there had been looting, and brawls, but that’s not what I saw. What I saw were people sharing what they had: their pick-up truck, television, radio, flashlight, sofa, comfort, sweet stories. What I saw were scared people being courageous and helpful and patient in a very trying situation.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander, unless noted