Stories

Remembering The Loma Prieta Earthquake

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The collapsed Cyprus Freeway. The quake hit just after 5 pm, which everyone in the Bay Area knows is the midst of rush hour. Consequently, 42 people were killed just on the Cypress alone. Photo courtesy USGS.gov.

Today is the 27th anniversary of the 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta Earthquake that violently shook the San Francisco bay area on October 17, 1989 at 5:04 pm. I was a little girl at the time, just two months away from turning 7-years-old. Although I had grown up in the East Bay and was accustomed to the regular earthquakes generated by the surrounding fault lines, Loma Prieta was terrifying. I had never experienced anything like it… and haven’t again since. [Knock on wood].

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Me as a baby in our shaky Bay Area backyard.

The ’89 quake was different. It didn’t make us giggle and casually stroll to the nearest doorway while guessing the magnitude. It collapsed freeways, leveled neighborhoods, killed entire families …and to this day it still has Northern Californians glancing knowingly at each other on unusually hot autumn days (when the air is filled with haunting stillness) and whispering “Earthquake Weather” with a shudder.

Thanks to the “On This Day” app, my Facebook newsfeed reminds me of my past years’ posts. Because 2014 was the 25th anniversary of Loma Prieta I had shared one of the many local news articles about the quake at the time, along with my own memory of experiencing it. Being such a historic event, my children will undoubtedly ask me about it some day so I think the memory is worth sharing here too. If nothing else, for safe keeping.

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My Facebook post from October 17, 2014:

“I was 6-years-old at the time (almost 7) and was stuck in bed with the Chickenpox.  When Lom Prieta initially hit, it felt like a huge ** SLAM**. It was like someone had picked our entire house up a couple inches and slammed it back down.
A week prior to that we had been talking about the creaky spot in the house (for those that knew that house, it was right above the rounded step in the Toy Room, next to the changing table) and during the conversation my dad had joking jumped on the spot. I guess he was trying to show that you wouldn’t fall through the floor, but those who know my dad know that he is not a small man (Guess where I got my height from?!) and when he came down from that jump the entire house shook with a “WHAM!”. It made me jump and maaaaan was mom mad!

Fast forward a few days and I’m in bed, feeling miserable, itchy and bored when suddenly I’m startled by the house doing that familiar “WHAM!”. I immediately jumped out of bed excited. Dad must be home early from running loads [my old man was a truck driver] that day! And I was obviously missing out on some fun if he was jumping in the Toy Room again! …But before I could reach my bedroom door, the low rumble of a quake started out of nowhere and the floor suddenly felt like it was sliding around under my feet. Earthquake!!!! And a big one!!! The rumble became a roar and the whole house was creaking and swaying.

Being born and raised in the Bay Area, I knew to immediately dive into the doorway and hold onto the door jam. It felt like the shaking would never stop and I heard things falling and people hollering on the other end of the house. When it did stop, the hallway door flew open and my mom was yelling “Is everyone Okay?!! Don’t move!! Just stay where you are!” I wasn’t sure what she was doing but it took forever for her to come get me. In the mean time, aftershocks hit. One after another. Some felt as big as the initial quake. I hugged the doorframe. I hadn’t been scared until I heard mom panicking.

Eventually we got out into the front yard. I was rounded up with the daycare children in the middle of our street because there was word going around that chimneys were falling in our neighborhood. I didn’t understand why that was significant until I overheard the neighbor explaining to his kid that if a chimney landed on you, it would kill you and the safest place was the middle of the street where the chimneys couldn’t reach you.

I remember laying down on the pavement and hearing the familiar rumble start again. I looked up at the elementary school across the street just in time to see a roll in the pavement. It traveled across the lawn, then the street and sidewalk, like a moving speedbump. Behind it was another and another. The aftershocks were literally making the ground roll in huge waves.

That was the first time in my entire life that I realized how powerful mother nature was and how dangerous earthquakes could actually be. I remember taping jingle bells to the wall above my bed after that, because I thought it would wake me if another big quake hit while I was sleeping. Even now, I still get extremely nervous being stuck in traffic on (and under!) bridges and highway overpasses. The news coverage of the Cypress still haunts me.”

I was just a child, blissfully unaware of the death and devastation witnessed by so many others at the time. It was explained to me that the power, gas and water was shut off in our neighborhood while damage to the various lines was assessed. So my mom left a note on the front door of our home in case any of the daycare parents came looking for their children. Then she herded all of those kids with my siblings and I to our friend’s video rental store a block away. The video store had a functioning bathroom, an endless supply of children’s movies and a working telephone that Mom used to attempt contacting all the kids’ parents (remember, this was before cell phones, in an emergency that resulted in most areas having no electricity or phone lines). After that, we waited. We waited for the last child to be picked up by their parents. We waited for the authorities to deem our neighborhood safe before we could return home. We waited for a phone call from our dad who was scheduled to be driving his truck back from San Francisco at the time of the quake… on the bridge that was initially rumored to have “collapsed”.

Dad made it home safely. By a stroke of luck, he finished his final run early that day and was safely parked in the truck yard in Livermore when the quake hit, wondering why his windshield was rattling. But in the days that followed our entire family shared a foldout couch in the living room to be near the front door while aftershocks continued at all hours of the day and night. When our power could be turned back on we watched the news and saw images of the death and destruction that had only existed as rumors to us. Everyone spoke hysterically of the damage to the Bay Bridge so we expected to see it collapsing into the ocean …but the news revealed images of only a tiny section of the upper deck that had crushed a single car (the driver of which had walked away). But the Bay Bridge headlines were insignificant next to the Cypress freeway and the Marina District. The earthquake changed Northern California (and it’s people) forever. Now we always prepare for the worst… but hope for the best.

Where were you when Loma Prieta struck? If you feel so inclined, please share your story in the comments. I’d love to read it.

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