Saturday, October 17, 2009

Remembering the Loma Prieta Earthquake

Today is the 20th anniversary of the earthquake that leveled the Marina District, knocked a hole in the Bay Bridge, and destroyed the Cypress Structure, killing 42 people unlucky enough to be driving on it.  I looked for my diary for the period (yes, I keep a diary), only to find absolutely no entries between August 1989 and April 1990!  This is what happens when you use a diary to rant about things that bother you; when you're reasonably happy, you don't write in it!  So this entire account is from memory, and I won't swear to any of it.

At 5:04 PM on October 17, 1989, I was at work at the Bank of America's data center in Concord, California, in my window cube on the 2nd floor of Building C.  This wasn't a bad place to be - Building C is only 4 stories high and broader than it is tall, so it's pretty stable.  My friends in Building D (6 stories high and mounted on rollers because at that date it had production mainframes on the 5th floor) told me they had a pretty wild ride.  Still, you couldn't miss it when the place started to rock, and I immediately dived under the desk in my cube.  The quake lasted 15 seconds - when the floor is rocking under you, that's a long time.  I had time to look up at the tangle of electrical wires on the underside of my desk, wonder if I ought to be under there, look at the wall of windows right across the aisle, and conclude that yes, I should be under the desk.

Next, of course, BART shut down.  BART, for the non-local readers, is Bay Area Rapid Transit, the local light rail system, and much of it runs on elevated tracks.  It actually wasn't damaged; but management shut it down until they could inspect it.  Since I had ridden BART to work that morning, I now had no way to get home. 

I didn't really try to get home right away; those of us still in the office spent some time gibbering at each other and phoning people to see if they were all right. 

We also wanted to know the status of the mainframe computers - at that time I worked on the team that supported a secondary set of mainframes (VM, for the technically curious) that the Bank of America used for back-office work, including everybody's email.  (Remember, this is 1989.)  Those machines were in the San Francisco data center, and we were worried about them, because if they crashed, it could take hours to get them safely back up and running.  Fortunately the San Francisco data center (also on rollers) came through the earthquake in fine shape, and the automatic diesel backup generators kicked in when the power failed, just the way they should, and gave the operators time to shut the systems down orderly.  Just time.  The diesels ran out of fuel 10 minutes after the systems came down.  After that, the fuel gauges were checked more often.

Eventually I decided to see if I could cadge a ride home, since the Caldecott Tunnel seemed to be undamaged.  I rode home with a woman I didn't know very well, who lived a mile or so from me in the Oakland hills.  I still remember that ride.  I was in much more danger in that car that I had been from the earthquake, because my driver was out of control.  She kept taking her hands off the wheel to put her palms to her cheeks and shriek, every time the radio reported another development.  It didn't help that she tuned the radio to KPFA, which was broadcasting every disaster it could hear of, in a hysterical tone that I thought was rather irresponsible; they clearly gave the impression that all of downtown Berkeley was on fire, although I found later that it was only one building.  I remember wondering if I should tell her to pull over and let me drive, except that we were on a freeway, and it wasn't clear she wouldn't just stop in the lane.  I was profoundly grateful when she dropped me off.

That's about it.  Our house was undamaged.  My husband was fine - he was walking across a parking lot to his vanpool when the quake hit.  That was the beginning of the time when you couldn't drive directly from Oakland to San Francisco - you had to go down to San Mateo or up to Richmond.  I got out of the habit of going to San Francisco during that period, and I've never really gotten it back.  The destruction of the Cypress Structure bothered me more than the rest, because I have a collection of relatives who, when I was a child, lived in Alameda and San Leandro; and when we drove to visit them, we took the Cypress Structure.  We'd all moved on and I didn't drive that route any more, but that could easily have been my whole family on that lower deck.  Scary thoughts.


  1. hedera:

    My experience of that day is vivid too. Working in the city--out on Sutter at Franklin in San Francisco--I took off from work early, as was my wont in those days, because on this date the Bay Bridge World Series was set to start early that evening, and I'd driven to work, which meant that if I left by 3:30, I could make a fast getaway over the Bay Bridge, maybe even make a quick stop at my favorite book store along the way--which is exactly what I did. I drove over the Eastern span at about 4:15 PM, and went into Serendipity Books to do a quick browse. I was on the second floor (actually a sort of reinforced mezzanine), surrounded by book shelves on all sides, when the shaking started. A fairly sudden jolt, followed by some irregularly rhythmic rolls, which got more and more intense. I had the thought, as I was standing there looking out the only second floor window, that it was just "on the edge"--that if this rolling got any sharper the building might be in jeopardy. Book shelves began to tip over. I ran across the mezzanine and down a flight of stairs just as a tall 10 foot high book shelf came slamming down onto the concrete floor below. And then, suddenly and blessedly, it stopped. There was this sense of absolute silence, then the bookstore employee began calling to people in the store "is everyone all right?" etc. And then I had an urgent sense of concern for my house, and our two cats--house cats, not outdoor cats, the kind who get "lost" when they're loose--and drove immediately home. There weren't many cars on the road. When I turned on the TV, the players at Candlestick Park were still standing around on the field, looking dazed and curious. Reports hadn't begun to come in yet. Our house was okay, and the cats seemed perfectly calm. Animals are supposed to "know" about earthquakes coming, but I didn't recall any strange behavior the day before. A call to my wife revealed that she was being allowed to leave work early, as if they were kids being sent home early from school. By the time she arrived home, all the bad news had gotten out about the damage. That evening, and most of the next day, were spent in a mood that was very reminiscent of the day after Kennedy was shot. People shaking their heads and meditating the accidents of fate.

  2. I missed that earthquake. While I was attending Calif. College of Arts and Crafts (College/Broadway) earlier, I experienced a lessor magnitude tremor, lived on the second floor on Vernon St.