Anniversary of a Whoppin’ Earthquake

Loma Prieta, Marina District, cars , 11.25.89

Loma Prieta, Marina District, cars , 11.25.89

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.


Marina District, SF, 11.25.89

Marina District, SF, 11.25.89

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.


Cypress St. Viaduct, Oakland, courtesy Wikipedia

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.


Marina District, SF, 11.25.89

Marina District, SF, 11.25.89

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



53 thoughts on “Anniversary of a Whoppin’ Earthquake

  1. Living in Vancouver, BC, we know we are due for a major earthquake in the near future. Thanks for this reminder of what it could look like and how important it is to be prepared.

    • When we live in earthquake country, we have frequent reminders to not put off the things we want to say and do, right Shelley? I’m glad you enjoyed the post today, thanks so much for your visit. 🙂

    • Yes, we definitely all are floating on moving plates. Enjoyed the link, Sherry, thanks. The article measured EQ size in a code of roman numeral intensity, I assume it was pre-Richter. Thank you! 🙂

  2. It was a scary time – I was in an office building too – in Walnut Creek. I was able to get in my car and get on the freeway before it was closed down. Yup, no electricity for about four days! Quite a time.

    • Then you have survival to celebrate this weekend too, Jan. Great that you got across the fwy before it closed, so many people were stranded on one side of the Bay for days. I’m glad to know you exper’d the Loma Prieta too — thanks so much for your comment. 🙂

    • Thanks so much, Joanne — yes, memories of kindness and consideration tend to serve us so much better. Thanks for your visit today, and for taking the time to comment — much appreciated. 🙂

    • If I hadn’t survived I never would have known blogging, never would have learned from you what boondocking is. 😉 Thanks so much Gunta, for your visit and warm comment today. 😀

  3. I’m glad that you were unharmed by that earthquake my friend. It’s a unique experience, that’s when you learn how powerful is Earth and how merciful is G-d! Thanks Jet! 🙂

    • We often think of the earth as a stable aspect, and it’s quite a shock when you experience earth moving in the most unstable way — yes I sure did learn how powerful the earth is. Thanks so much, HJ, for your visit and kindness. 😀

  4. I Was living on the East Coast at the tine of the earthquake and remember it well, but I wasn’t there and so to hear your first hand experience all these years later really makes me realise how awful it would have been for residents of San Francisco like yourself. You describe it so well. Thank goodness you survived to tell this story, and most definitely an anniversary of great importance. Thank you. Janet

    • Even living on the east coast you remember the hubbub all these years later, that says a lot, Janet. The big jolts and the little shivers, they remind us to stay focused on the things that count. Thanks so very much for your kind comment, Janet, I am grateful for your frequent visits. 😀

    • I was one of the lucky ones, that’s what it boils down to. So glad you enjoyed the post, dear Nan — and I always love your comments here and on FB too. Thanks so very much. 😀

  5. thanks for bearing witness
    and offering this reminder, Jet!
    a year earlier
    still in grad school at Cal
    i often drove on that section
    of the 880.
    i saw the carnage on tv
    from AZ.

    • ooh, so glad you were watching the 880 on TV and not driving on it to grad school, my friend. Since they have rebuilt that section of the fwy it is very different, and really nice. Thanks so very much for sharing your relation to the Loma rieta~~ 😀

    • It was terrifying, but as you say, great to see people pull together. I still stay away from heavy objects on the walls and ceilings. Thanks so very much, pc, appreciate your comment today. 😀

  6. Oh,Jet dear,you stirred up bitter memories as I come from a country where there is plenty of seismic activity and I’ve personal experience too.Most graphic your account of this disastrous quake and the pandemonium that followed.It’s really a very scary experience,you don’t really know when it will strike,its duration and of course if it’s the main one or another one of higher scale will follow.As you said above,everyone becomes neighbours,friends and try to help one another in tragic moments like that.Hope “Giant Enceladus”,who causes earthquakes,never awakes again.Take care,my friend 🙂

  7. Jet it must have been such a frightening and surreal situation. I am so heartened to read of your experience of people helping each other. I hope the memories of the day are not too traumatic for you. Sending you peaceful energy.

  8. Its not something we experience here very much but I remember this quake well. So glad after reading your post that it was positive in the face of imminent danger and devastation you thought to comment on the good that happened that day which restores my faith in humanity. Thanks Jet 🙂

  9. Thanks for the memory? I was in the basement locker room of the Stonestown YMCA – my son had just finished a swimming lesson and I was putting his shoes on. (I was glad I hadn’t convinced him to go to the mens locker room on his own.) The quake seemed to keep going. Lights out. Emergency light on. Screaming. We went home to the Sunset District. All the buildings swayed together. Only a few cupboard doors opened spilling the lightweight spices. Mike came home from work at the airport. Scariest part? Watching the cars on the Bay Bridge. Seeing the Cypress collapsed. (A place we always feared driving on.) Going to the Marina District several days later. — Lynn

  10. What a traumatic experience! I was only 8 in 1987 so learning about this specific event was new to me, though I knew San Fransisco is prone to earth quakes. A good reminder to try and live life to the fullest, you never know what will happen tomorrow.

  11. My memory of Loma Prieta ironically was of walking down the Champs Elysees in Paris. I nearly lost my mind when I spotted a newspaper with a front page story and photo of the Marina on fire. When I called my best friend at the time, he told me he’d been on the Bay Bridge an hour before the section collapsed. An extraordinary time in San Francisco, but your story does show there were real people showing real kindness and compassion too. Thank you, Jet.

    • I really appreciate this comment, and hearing about your connection to it, K’lee, all the way from Paris. When I heard the Bay Bridge had collapsed was when I knew we were in some serious trouble. Tragedies unfolded all week long. I am very glad your best friend escaped the collapse. Thanks so very much for your visit and comment. 🙂

      • Your words “emotional punch” are so right on. That event shaped my young adult life, taught me not to take a single day for granted. I felt lucky for the lesson, and lucky to have survived. Thanks so very much, K’lee, for your words. 😀

  12. As a firefighter in the Midwest, I watched this unfold while at work, with a roomful of fellow workers, having tuned in to watch the World Series.
    Our hearts went out to the victims, as well as the rescuers, we sat and watched, transfixed by the images, with much discussion about the difficulties of the fire suppression (broken water mains) and rescue efforts. (Shoring up weakened structures and crawling through collapsed double deck highways to find and aid victims).
    Seeing neighbors, as well as strangers, join together and help each other, and the rescue efforts, is a testament to the human spirit to survive, and to aid those who need it.
    We felt helpless, wishing we could be there to assist our “Brothers” in San Francisco/Oakland. Sadly, I would relive those feelings a few short years later as I reported to work on the morning 9/11.
    Thanks for sharing your story, Jet. I’m happy that you made it through that trying time and are here to share your stories and Athena’s pictures. I like to think that I possibly saw you in one of the scenes that were shown on the TV coverage of those who truly “survived” this historical event.

    • Thanks so much, tminch, for your great comment. I really enjoyed hearing about the Loma Prieta from your firefighter perspective, and hearing your memories too. About 2 mos. ago I visited a SF fire station museum for some research on the novel I am currently writing. The retired firefighter docent proudly showed me the fire truck that came through for them in the Loma Prieta. All the other trucks were already out of the stn that day (as you can imagine), so when more hell broke loose, they used the old standby, the only one left, and it really came through for them. Thanks so much for stopping by, dear T. 😀 😀

  13. I’ll have to look that museum up when I get to visit the Bay Area. Right after Alcatraz, of course! Any other destinations that you enjoy that you might recommend?

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