Big, historic events have a way of etching themselves into our memories. If you were alive when John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated, when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded or when planes hit the towers on 9/11, you probably recall every detail about that specific moment when you realized the gravity of what was happening around you.
The Loma Prieta earthquake is one of those events for people who lived here in the Bay Area.
We all have a story about where we were that day, what shook or broke near us and what we did in the hours after. This is my story.
I had a ‘bit’ of an attitude problem and resistance to authority at the age of 13, so when I was called out of my middle school class to go to the office, I naturally assumed my mouth had landed me in trouble, again. To my surprise, I was not pulled in for a yet another meeting with the principal. Instead, my mom had unexpectedly shown up to take me out early, telling the school I had a doctor’s appointment. I didn’t.
For context, my mom severely injured her back while working at a restaurant more than a year before that day. Until then, she had done the single mom two-job grind, which made me one of those old school ‘latchkey’ kids. On the day of the earthquake, she had a workers’ comp doctor appointment in San Francisco. Her previous experiences with insurance doctors were pretty unpleasant, so she decided last-minute to take me with her for moral support.
Some of our family members knew she would be in the city that afternoon, but they had no idea I was there with her. We left Concord for San Francisco sometime around 2 p.m. on Oct. 17, 1989. We wouldn’t make it back home until well into the next morning.
The appointment itself wasn’t nearly as bad as she thought it would be. We were walking away from the office in one of those old Victorians, down the sidewalk back toward our ’78 Buick Regal around 4:30 p.m., when the nurse suddenly came running down the wooden stairs, waving her hands around and calling my mom’s name. They’d apparently forgotten to give her copies of the X-rays they’d taken, and so we turned around and went back inside for what probably amounted to about 15 minutes.
Back in old “Bucky” the Buick, my mom and I were driving along the surface streets on our way toward the bridge. I remember it being beautiful and sunny out, the kind of San Francisco post card feel that locals seldom get to experience. We were both in a good mood, smiling and singing with the music bumping from the speakers. At that point, the stress of the appointment had faded and it was starting to feel like a hooky kind of adventure day.
And then the radio cut out.
My mom acted on what I can only describe as some weird, homegrown instinct. She rolled down the power windows, pretty fancy for back then, and stopped right where we were. My eyes focused on one man who stood straddled over his bike on a sidewalk kitty-corner from us.
Within seconds, reality turned upside down. It was 5:04 p.m. when the world around us turned to Jello. The top and bottom of the same concrete building seemed to be in two different places at once as everything swayed, although the word ‘sway’ doesn’t give off that violent feeling I’m trying to express. The man and his bike fell to the sidewalk.
It felt like forever passed by in those seconds.
Literally and figuratively shaken, we stayed right there inside the car, stuck like deer in headlights. I can’t remember seeing any building damage, although I’m sure there was. There’s a strange tunnel vision that washes over in traumatic moments like that. My mom eventually came to. After that, she was laser focused on getting us the hell out of there. We’d barely started moving again when the first aftershock struck.
Determined but turned around in all the chaos, my mom somehow forgot how to get to the Bay Bridge. She rolled down her window to ask a woman out on the street for directions. I will forever associate her voice with the booing witch from “A Princess Bride” as she screamed into our car, “Bridge? There is NO bridge!”
Understandably, we thought she was just a little nuts and we made our way to the western span anyhow. Another strong aftershock came as we were sitting in a sea of brake lights, sandwiched between two big-rigs. I was pretty sure at that point that we were going to die, but my mother, the oddball she can be, broke out into hysterical laughter. I was stunned.
It was that delirious, nervous laughter some people get when everything is completely out of control. As an adult, I now understand the phenomena. But at 13, I was going to kill her myself if the trucks didn’t do the job for me.
I don’t remember how long we sat there trying to get onto the actual bridge, but of course, we never made it. The cars were literally turned around, slowly and awkwardly. The upper level of the bridge we so badly wanted to be on had broken and collapsed onto exactly where we would have been driving. To this day, I’m thankful the doctor’s office forgot to hand my mom those X-rays.
The thing about real terror is that when you’re in the center of it, you can’t actually wrap your mind around what you’re seeing. You know people are suffering all around you – it’s a heaviness that permeates everything. I know we passed by destroyed buildings and injured people. I remember the burning smell and the constant bright lights and screeching sounds of sirens. I remember tons of people out on the streets and sidewalks, and screaming…there was so much screaming.
I can’t give you specific details about any of that. It was akin to a dream-like sequence where nothing at all makes sense — you wake up in a sweat without really knowing why. Somehow though, I still remember that the man on the bike was wearing a yellow jacket.
From the bridge U-turn on, everything was about trying to get home, but that would prove to be no easy feat. Hour after hour, one blocked road after another.
There was an eerie darkness through most of the night, with power knocked out just about everywhere, save the brake lights surrounding us and the glow of fire and emergency vehicles in the distance. We needed to find food and a payphone to check in with family and let them know we were okay. Cell phones in those days were the size of small cars and reserved for the super rich or super important – we were neither of those things. But the phones weren’t working and every food joint we passed by seemed to be shuttered.
I haven’t once since that night wondered what an apocalypse would look and feel like – I’m pretty sure that was it.
It was well past midnight in God knows where when we finally found an open McDonald’s. You could tell it was open from a mile away based on the mile-long line of other hungry and weary travelers. My mom and I rummaged through her wallet and my backpack, under the seats and through the console to find whatever change we could put our hands on just to try and get a couple cheeseburgers.
When we finally made it back to the East Bay, we went directly to my aunt’s house in Walnut Creek to let her know we were indeed alive. Remember, nobody knew I was with my mom that day, and family was coming unglued without hearing from either of us. It was close to 4 a.m. before we were able to squash their worries. Once my aunt knew we were okay, she broke into tears as hysterical as my mom’s awkward aftershock laughter.
It was only after then, when we eventually turned on the news inside her living room, that we grasped the velocity of what had happened, what we were so incredibly close to at every point in our journey home.
The Bay Bridge collapsed in San Francisco. The Cypress Freeway collapsed in Oakland. Homes and businesses were decimated. Nearly 4,000 people were injured and 63 people died. The scars of cracked roads and buildings reminded us every day of what we’d all been through and what could easily happen again.
Thirty years have passed by and many people have forgotten that fear. Generations born after have no context for the real destruction that lies just below our feet, waiting. But I don’t have the luxury of forgetting, nor would I want to.
I want to remember what we can survive. I want to remember the communities that came together, the people who rushed to help strangers.
I need to remember that it can happen again.
The aunt that was so happy to see us in those early morning hours on Oct. 18, 1989 was good friends with a Caltrans bigwig who let her up onto the bridge and near the Cypress after the earthquake. The old, grainy photos in this story are her first-hand account of just some of the destruction caused that day.