"Keep going." Those were the only two words I heard as the massive light rigs above me swayed as if in a stiff breeze. The sound was like a clog dancer running from one end of the building to the other right down the middle of the roof (we later learned that sound was bolts in the roof popping). I didn't perceive the rolling of the stage as much as I noticed the seats in the audience moving in impossible ways.
It was 5:04PM on October 17, 1989. I was rehearsing for the play Beyond the Horizon in my high school's new theatre (completed that year), and the Bay Area had just been hit by the Loma Prieta earthquake. It is a perfect theatre moment that as the quake hit, our director told us to keep going. We had no intention of doing so.
Remarkably, I don't remember any panic, as the students who were still at school (mostly the jocks – there was a basketball game going on, I recall and the theatre folk) milled about our small field. There was even some nervous joking around. No one was crying or screaming. I do remember looking over and seeing the blimp in the distance and wondering what happened at the World Series game being played at Candlestick Park.
This may shock some of our younger readers, but in 1989 information traveled slowly. No one had cell phones or lap tops. The power was out and the phone lines were shut down (only being used for emergency purposes) the only way any of us knew what was going on was through one kids old school transistor radio. Even then, the information was spotty. Those of us still at the school started to think about getting home, and quickly split up in cars.
My friend Gabe had 6 people crammed into his car, giving as many people rides as he could. This meant we criss-crossed the city to get folks home. I was one of the last, living way out in the Sunset district. Before the drive, the earthquake had been sort of exciting. No one at school was hurt, and it was a change from our routine. There was a manic energy. After we started driving, the enormity of the destruction, and the impact of the quake on the City started to dawn on us.
Here we saw a phalanx of fire trucks fighting a huge apartment fire there we saw the entire brick front of a building tumbled into the road. My neighborhood was relatively untouched by the quake. Having been built after WW2 on sand dunes, it just sort of rolled with the blows. We had no electricity when I got home, but everything else was fine.
We listened to the radio in the car, and started to hear all sorts of wild rumors – the Bay Bridge had collapsed, a freeway in Oakland was destroyed with people trapped underneath, the Marina was burning, City Hall was on fire. Sadly, most of them were true.
I remember my parents going to a store to buy batteries for flashlights and radios, and the store was only letting people in one at a time. My parents had a very Bohemian response to the quake once it was clear that we were safe. We picked up my best friend (his parents were having a candlelit dinner) and drove up to Twin Peaks to see the City dark.
We weren't the only people there. It really was a beautiful sight to see the City almost totally dark. Only a few buildings (mostly government ones) had any lights at all, so the only glimmers were car headlights and a warm glow from the direction of the Marina. That glow was the massive fire that was still being fought there. The Marina was where the worst damage of the quake was done (the lesson from our last two major quakes, the fire is as bad or worse as the quake in many ways).
It was a strange feeling, knowing that so many were suffering and we were safe and even having a good time. It was a little party on top of Twin Peaks as we all cheered everytime another block of the grid got turned back on. You could see the progress of the engineers, as like some sort of massive Lite Brite the City lurched back to life.
When we got home, the lights were back on, and we could see the pictures of the day. The one etched in my memory is the car dropping off the Bridge. That video still shows up in my nightmares every once in awhile. The news showed it countless times, and each time we all winced when the nose of the car dipped. The local news that night was a call in show, where folks shared their stories. Sort of a mass catharsis.
Demonstrating what a huge dork I was, even at a young age, I decided that I was going to school the day after, since my school hadn't been listed on the list of closed schools. Stupid, I know but I also kind of wanted to see what was going on around. Our bus system was only barely running, and wasn't going into any subways, so getting to school took a lot longer than usual. Ironically, as I got there one of my good friends was arriving as well. And we weren't the only ones. At the door of the school, the Dean was telling people to go home. School was actually closed for a week.
For me, life was pretty much back to normal within 2 days. So much so that my friends and I planned a D&D game at my place for Friday, since we would have the day off from school. I spent Thursday volunteering to help feed the refugees, a great reminder to me that not everyone's life would return to normal. There were hundreds living in the gym of Marina Middle School whose houses had either burned or were deemed unlivable. One of my friends even said he saw Joe DiMaggio in the refugee line!
To me, the Earthquake was the moment when I fell in love with San Francisco. We had only moved there 10 years before, and I still thought a lot about Texas. Seeing how this wacky city responded to such crisis (with it's customary elan, whimsy and compassion) made me love it. The outpouring of love and help from neighbors to those who needed it, the spontaneous parties that sprung up to keep people's spirits up and the tireless work of the police and firefighters moved me tremendously. In fact, before Loma Prieta I had had a callow teenagers contempt for community service. I mocked my friends when they donated their time. Loma Prieta changed all that, and made me realize how important helping others truly was.
It's been 20 years. The scars have mostly healed. But it still shocks me how vivid my memories of that day are.
Last 5 posts by Ezra
- Yogi Berra for Governor - December 7th, 2010
- BGGCon 2010 - Day 0 - December 6th, 2010
- Your Friday Afternoon is Happy to See the Name World B. Free - December 3rd, 2010
- Boardgamegeek Con - Year 2 - November 15th, 2010
- The Games We Played: Alexander Hamilton - AntiFederalist - November 12th, 2010