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Loma Prieta: 30 years ago

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Tomorrow is the 30th anniversary of the Loma Prieta Earthquake, the 6.9 magnitude temblor that wrecked large parts of Northern California.

I remember it well. I was living in Oakland and working as a stringer, or freelance reporter, for the Oakland Tribune newspaper; I’d been assigned a little story for the regional section of the paper (“local girl wins kite-flying contest”) and was interviewing her father over the phone. I was in Oakland; he was in Walnut Creek, about 16 miles away to the northeast. At 5:04 p.m., I felt the first tremor and told him, “We’re getting a little earthquake.”

“Nothing here,” he replied.

“It’s not so little.”

“Now I’m getting it.”

“It’s big! Gotta go!”

Loma Prieta Mountain, the epicenter of the earthquake, in Santa Cruz County, is about 71 miles south of Oakland. Earthquake waves travel an average of 4 miles per second. Since Walnut Creek is further away from the epicenter than Oakland, it took about 4 seconds longer for the waves to reach the kite girl’s father; and our phone call was a vivid illustration of that time delay.

As I hung up the phone, I heard various objects in my home crashing to the floor: wine glasses, framed photos and the like. Outside, car alarms were blaring. The entire house shook violently—and then stopped. A terrible silence ensued, except for the car alarms. The whole thing had lasted a mere 15 seconds.

I ran over to my next door neighbor, Robert’s, place and banged on the door. When he opened it a cloud of marijuana smoke drifted out. “Robert!” I gasped. “Was that the Big One?” All of our electric power was now gone, but Robert had an early-model battery-powered T.V. Its screen was only four inches wide, but he was able to get one of the local San Francisco television stations that remained on the air via their generators. When the announcer said that the Bay Bridge had collapsed, Robert and I almost became hysterical.

The bridge hadn’t collapsed, after all; a portion of the upper deck had, and several cars plunged into the breach, killing one driver. The most deaths occurred on a 2-mile stretch of the 980 Freeway in Oakland (on which I’d driven earlier that day): the upper deck pancaked onto the lower deck, crushing hundreds of cars and killing dozens of drivers. It had been rush hour; the only reason more people hadn’t been on the freeway and died was because the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s were playing against each other in the World Series, at Candlestick Park. Most of the Bay Area had taken the afternoon off to watch the historic ballgame.

A month or so later, I was in the city room of the Oakland Tribune, meeting with my editor on another story, when the paper’s general manager entered and yelled that he had an announcement. The fifty or so people in the room immediately gathered around in silence. No one had the slightest idea what he was going to say.

What he said was, “I am pleased to announce that our newspaper has just won the Pulitzer Prize!” A tremendous cheer went up; the Trib always had a bit of an inferiority complex, and it was amazing to be in that place, at that time, when so many hard-working people felt their efforts had at last been recognized. The specifics: one of our photographers, Michael Macor—with whom I had often worked—had snapped the pictures of the collapsed, smoking 980 freeway, pictures that were reproduced around the world and became, with other images such as the fallen houses in the Marina, the graphic symbols of the Loma Prieta Earthquake.

We here in the Bay Area, as well as other Californians from Los Angeles to Bakersfield to Santa Rosa and who knows where else—live with the possibility of “the Big One” looming at the edge of our minds. Earthquakes are our hurricanes, our potential Katrina: we had a 4.5 magnitude just a few miles from my house the other day, a reminder from the San Andreas network of faults that it is ready to rupture anytime. I went to Grocery Outlet yesterday and stocked up on canned foods to join my bottled water for my earthquake supply kit. This is the reality we live with in California: the possibility of a major disaster, in which we may be on our own for a considerable amount of time.

  1. I remember the day well.

    I was working for an ad agency in Los Angeles. Our office was in a 10 story building on Wilshire Blvd.

    I felt the building begin to slightly sway.

    I looked outside my 6th floor office window into the surrounding residential community — and saw water lapping out of a backyard swimming pool from the seismic waves that traveled all the way down to Los Angeles.

    One of my older brothers (a resident of Walnut Creek) was attending the baseball game at Candlestick Park when the quake struck. (Fortunately he was uninjured — not sitting in the section of the bleachers that collapsed.)

    We here in Los Angeles experience a major earthquake every decade or so.

    It is a dread we silently fear.

    And “con” ourselves into believing The Big One (like 1906 in San Francisco) won’t happen in our lifetime.

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