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Remembering Loma Prieta


Today is the 32nd anniversary of the Loma Prieta Earthquake. I was at home in Oakland when it struck, in the same place I still live. I’d recently decided to become a writer, and was lucky enough to get a freelance gig at the Oakland Tribune, where every day I’d walk over to the newsroom and get an assignment from my editor for an article that would appear the next morning. On that particular day, she’d assigned me to interview, by phone, a Walnut Creek father whose young daughter had won a kite-flying contest. (Yes, it was a lightweight story, but it taught me how to write, work with an editor, interview, and meet deadlines—all important skills that later served me well.)

I was talking to the father when I felt the first rumbling, at 5:04 p.m.

“We just had a little earthquake,” I told him.

“Not feeling anything here.” Walnut Creek is 17 miles northeast of Oakland, meaning that it’s that much further from the earthquake’s epicenter, in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

In my livingroom the shaking increased. “It’s not so little,” I said.

“Now we’re getting it.”

Suddenly there was a tremendous noise and shaking, and I heard things in my apartment falling to the floor.

“Gotta go!” I told my interlocutor. Hanging up the phone, I ducked underneath my kitchen table.

A few moments later, when the shaking stopped, I ran out into the hallway and banged on my neighbor, Robert’s, door. When Robert opened it, a cloud of marijuana smoke drifted out. Robert was a writer.

“Was that The Big One?” I asked him.

All the power was out, but Robert had a tiny, battery-powered T.V. He found one of the San Francisco news stations—I think it was KRON—that was still broadcasting by its generator. From that little T.V. we quickly learned that (a) the Bay Bridge had collapsed (which turned out not to be true) and (b) a sizable stretch of the double-decked I-980 Freeway, known as the Cypress Structure, had pancaked. As it was the height of rush hour, the news reporter said it must be expected the death toll on that 1-1/2 mile long freeway would be massive. (This, too, turned out to be an exaggeration. Although 42 people died under the rubble, the number would have been far higher had not the San Francisco Giants been playing the Oakland A’s at Candlestick Park in the World Series. Tens of thousands of commuters had left work early in order to watch the game and were thus not driving.)

The Loma Prieta Earthquake measured 6.9 on the old Richter Scale. It killed 63 people, injured thousands, and caused $12 billion in damage. And yet, it was not The Big One. That mythic, inevitable temblor is most likely to occur, not on the San Andreas Fault as Loma Prieta was, but on the Hayward Fault, which runs directly beneath Richmond, Berkeley, Oakland and the densely-populated bedroom communities of the East Bay.

As horrible as Loma Prieta was, far worse, in my opinion, was the disaster which hit Oakland just two years and two days later: the Oakland Hills Firestorm. I’ll write about that soon.

  1. Not to be argumentative, but a panel of the Bay Bridge did collapse, so it was partially true. I remember (or maybe misremember) a car going down the panel because it did not stop in time.

    I was on my floor at home, after school at the time. I remember the rumbling under me as I sat on the floor, reading a book. I stood up, saw my bulletin board swinging, and ran into the house calling for my dad. We just looked at each other, and when my dog came up and stupidly looked at me, I picked him up. Only afterwards, did I realize I was by a window. I lived in the Greater North Bay, so we didn’t have nearly the damage.

    I never saw anything like that freeway collapse, though.

  2. Yes, a panel did collapse, and a women was killed. My point was that, in the fog of disaster, local journalists reported something that wasn’t true.

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