Van Ness MUNI Station

Alvin Ja

I was stationed as Inspector at Van Ness Station for rush-hour trouble-shooting that day. I was talking to the Station Agent when the earthquake hit. Both the Station Agent and I ran upstairs (thinking self-preservation!) to the street.

After the shaking settled down, I went back down to the Van Ness platform. There was no power to trains and only emergency lighting for station. Radio communication was dead. There was a 4-car outbound train on the platform. I was hoping power would return and things could continue on their merry way. Unfortunately, I came to the realization that it ain’t going to happen after maybe 10-15 minutes of waiting.

By then, I had heard rumors of the Bay Bridge being down (my mental picture was of the Bridge having collapsed into the Bay). With no radio communication with Central Control and with my mental picture of the Bridge being down, I also came to the realization that I was de facto chief-in-charge at Van Ness. With the apparent seriousness of the earthquake, I figured that I would have to make decisions on my own.

I told the Operators (in 1989, each car in the 4-car train had an Operator) of the train on the Van Ness platform to tell passengers that it was a major quake and that the subway system was dead. They would have to go topside to find another way home.

There was another 4-car train (with a jam-packed rush hour load) stuck part way between Van Ness and Duboce junction, where the J-N trains split off from the K-L-M mainline. I tried to roll the train in reverse direction back to Van Ness Station but was unsuccessful because the brakes would not release. I told the Operators to keep the passengers calm while I ran back upstairs to get flashlights and to get the Station Agent to help evacuate the train.

The Station Agent (James Odoms) and I returned to the train and posted Operators and passengers at points along the catwalk and along the trackway at tripping hazard locations (such as switches, motors, conduit, steps, railroad ties) and successfully got people to walk from the trapped train out to the Van Ness platform with no injuries (that I know of, anyway). People, amazingly enough, were cooperative and helpful to each other: it was amazing because people who work as Operators and Inspectors at MUNI see a lot of the dark side of people. This same phenomenon of people rising to the occasion and cooperating in a crisis was repeated consistently during the days after the earthquake. Yes, the world CAN be a better place!

Aside from the evacuation described above, I’m sure that many Operators had to do evacuations of their trapped trains on their own with no assistance. At least I was lucky enough to pony up some flashlights from the Station Agent for my incident!

MUNI Inspectors and shop personnel stayed on duty until 2- 3 AM to clear the subway of trains whose brakes had locked up due to loss of electricity and to inspect the full length of the subway. I remember walking through the subway with Inspector Clyde Sanders from West Portal all the way to downtown, checking for damage to trackway and electrical overhead.

Hail Mary

Susan O’Malley

I arrived home from my 7th grade volleyball game, I was still wearing my mesh blue uniform. I think we lost that day.

I was in the kitchen alone, I think making a snack. Our kitchen had this amazing wallpaper, the kind where there was a scene of the ocean in three panels, along with a Kelly green lattice pattern.

When the earthquake started, I ran to the nearest doorway. The house was moving from side to side and so I held on and started reciting the Hail Mary. Just outside I could see our blue swimming pool, waves swooshing back and forth with such energy. That’s when I realized that this was really bad. I was scared. Holy Mary Mother of God prayer for us sinners now and at the hour of death…

When it finally stopped I went outside to cry. I mustered the courage to go back into our house to see if anything was terribly damaged. One of our goldfish was displaced on the carpet but still managed to survive after we plopped him back in his tank.

We camped out on my neighbors lawn that night. I ate junk food like Teddy Grahams and Oreos. It was actually kind of fun.

24 Hours with Walter

Suzanne T

I was studying at this cafe and the quake hit. It was the Meat Market cafe on 24th Street in Noe Valley. It was 1989, so I guess I was 25. I looked up and saw cracks spreading through the ceiling. Babies were screaming. Ducked under the table.

After the melee and shocks ended, everyone made their way out onto the sidewalk. At this time I struck up an earnest conversation with this guy about my age; his name was Walter and he had blonde dreadlocks and round John Lennon glasses. We formed an immediate bond.

We proceeded to wander down the street together where there were many displaced shop keepers with radios in from of their stores. We heard then that the bridge collapsed. We could see the fires burning in the Marina at a distance. We decided to investigate. Hopped into his car and drove through the presidio, stopping once so I could pee in the trees.

Everywhere was chaos. At the Marina we walked down streets having intense dialogue with displaced homeowners and a variety of disoriented people and walked to the edge of the water. By that time we were holding hands, naturally. When we got to the water we kissed.

We then decided that the best thing to do would be to get out of town, somewhere far away. He had a sleeping bag in his trunk. We drove south (stopping at a bar halfway to make some calls) to the beaches in Pescadero, and picked the longest, widest, most empty one, and laid out the bag. We slept under a full moon and cloudless sky. Of course we made love. It was beautiful, peaceful, and serene.

The next morning we went out to breakfast in Half Moon Bay, and I ate eggs while he read the paper. He then took me back to SF. I had been gone nearly 24 hours. He dropped me off and I never saw him again.

Town School for Boys

David Selzer

At the time of the quake I was 45 years old, teaching math at the Town School in San Francisco. I was making copies of an assignment in a small room on the second floor of my school in the Pacific Heights district of the city. I knew instantly it was a quake and took a few steps to stand in the doorway. I remember I braced myself with both arms. I looked across the hallway and made eye contact with another teacher who was standing in her doorway right across from me. Together we bounced around for 20-30 seconds. After the motion stopped I got out of the building quickly. It wasn’t damaged, but there was plenty of damage in the buildings I could see down in the Marina District. Several fires were already burning, creating plumes of smoke. A former student drove by where I was standing on Jackson and Scott Street. He stopped and told me that the Marina District was a real disaster zone.

I got worried about my girlfriend. I knew she had left school before the quake and was heading to the East Bay. I got in my car and drove to her house in Noe Valley, about 4 miles south. She wasn’t there. Electricity and phone service was out. I remember all the debris that had fallen off buildings and all the people in the street. We all exchanged information.

After a couple of hours my girlfriend came home. I was so relieved. She had a scary story: she was in downtown SF during the quake. She then tried to get on the Bay Bridge and the police actually let her on. She drove a bit and then thought better of it and turned around. She wouldn’t have been able to make it due to the section of the upper deck that had crashed onto the lower deck. Moments later, an unsuspecting driver died instantly as he flew off the upper deck due to the missing section of the upper deck. By the way, this crash was caught on tape and replayed on TV again and again. To me it is a gruesome reminder of that day and whenever it is shown, as it often is even to this day, I turn it off or look somewhere else because I know someone died right then.

The following day I drove to Santa Cruz. My mother, sister, and niece were fine. My mother was thankful that a neighbor had some over to her house after the quake and turned off her gas. It was a neighbor with whom she had been feuding (she didn’t like the way he parked his RV in his driveway). After this demonstration of concern for her welfare, she never spoke ill of him again.

From CCAC to the Cypress Structure

Jennifer Cobb

I was at CCAC on the south side of the campus on October 17th. We were working on a project outside on the edge of a building built up high on bedrock, so we saw the earthquake before we felt it. Someone remarked that the Safeway sign was moving back and forth, and as we looked up to see it, we began to feel the quake. It felt small at first, but what made an impact was how long it lasted. Usually earthquakes are over before you really have time to think about them, but there was enough time to process it, worry about it and begin to panic a little.

CCAC quake 1989

After it ended, the building we were in was OK and so we started to move on like nothing had happened. We initially had no idea of the extent of the situation until someone came running up to say that the Bay Bridge had collapsed and the school was closing. A few minutes later, the sirens started and they never seemed to stop that entire evening.

What I remember most about the earthquake is the sirens–every time I’m somewhere where there are multiple first responder responses it takes me back for a bit. We quickly realized that there weren’t many options in terms of leaving. BART was closed, the Caldecott tunnel was closed and the Bay Bridge was closed. Several of us ended up staying with another student whose brother lived close by. He was closer to the Cypress structure than CCAC was and I think that’s why it seemed like the sirens never ended. We huddled together and watched the images on TV most of the night then early the next morning drove the short distance to the structure because it seemed unreal on TV.

The devastation was unbelievable. There was also an odor that I’ll never forget from the fire (and what it was unfortunately consuming). The freeway was buckled and twisted and there were first responders everywhere. We drove through downtown Oakland and there were mannequins all over the street from the broken department store windows like corpses.

I don’t remember exactly when I was able to go home but I do remember San Francisco the first few days after the earthquake–the streets were eerily quiet–very few people around and there was an oppressive silence. I worked in a photo lab at the time and over the next few weeks thousands of images poured in from customers, the CHP and various governmental agencies. For weeks I couldn’t get away from it. Then life started up again and we all moved on.

The firestorm in the Oakland Hills two year later brought it all back again–it wasn’t the earthquake that was the scary part–it was the aftermath, the uncertainty, the shock–not knowing what was damaged and who was hurt, the sheer enormity of the collapse of the Cypress Structure and that the Bay Bridge had actually failed. That same shock and uncertainty was felt as we watched Oakland burn.

Another thing that is seared in my brain is how differently individual people respond to shocking incidents. Once we realized the enormity of the situation everyone’s tone changed–this was serious. I remember trying to get a hold of someone at the Maximum Rock and Roll house in Noe Valley to see how they were there. Harry answered the phone and all he could say repeatedly was that Double Rainbow on 24th St. had lost power and they were giving everyone free ice cream. He said this joyfully. I remember thinking–the bridge has collapsed and people are burning to death on the Cypress structure–this is not about ice cream! I think we all just dealt with it in our own way.

Cabrillo Highway

Emy S

I was riding in a mini-school bus (really just a van) with about 6 other students on the way back to Santa Cruz from Monterey, where I was attending 9th grade at York school. Suddenly, it felt like we were being blown all around the highway!

We stopped in the middle of the highway: I think we were somewhere around Watsonville by then. No one was around, and it appeared like the asphalt was rippling like a carpet that was being shaken from one end and WE WERE STANDING ON IT! It was kinda like surfing…that was just one of the aftershocks.

None of us really knew what to think about it, even the teacher who was driving. We were all kind of speechless and dumbfounded, but eventually the bus continued on so that we could be dropped off at our respective “bus stops.” Mine was in the Kmart parking lot.

I decided to walk home (which ended up making my mom really mad) like I normally did, and saw many curious sights along the way. Like the tile store that I passed everyday on my way home– it had tiles all strewn about everywhere. And the businesses seemed to be closed. And I noticed several chimneys and parts of buildings that had crumbled.

The whole thing seemed really weird, and I know it sounds impossible, but I didn’t really put it all together what a big deal it was. I still hadn’t heard the radio or any reports of how serious the damage was. I continued to be shocked when I came in my front door and saw the floor covered in cereal and broken dishes. I spent some time outside with the neighbors before my mom came home: she seemed really stressed out. I couldn’t really figure out why, except maybe that she was mad that I hadn’t waited for her at Kmart.

In the next days I remember listening to the radio, camping in the backyard and eating melted ice cream at the grocery store…it was all pretty exciting. Next I remember that downtown Santa Cruz had to move inside of tents and it was actually like that for quite awhile…like years!

Upper Deck Westbound

Kathy August

It’s the kind of day you never forget – right up there with the day Kennedy was shot or when the Challenger Space Shuttle went down.

I was on the Bay Bridge, traveling with my mother, my youngest brother and my son, who turned 6 months old that day. My other brother Kent, his wife, two young sons and their nanny (from Switzerland), had all just arrived from North Carolina. They had moved several years earlier from the Bay Area and were very excited to be making a return visit. They were staying at a small hotel/B&B just off of Fell Street. We were meeting them for dinner, and of course, to watch The Game. My brother Kraig was very concerned about not missing even a minute of the game, and to that end, brought a pocket sized transistor radio with him. The plan was to get some food that we could take back to the B&B so the little boys (age 2 & 4) could play and we could watch the game. He brought the radio to listen to every minute of the game, even when they went to get us food!

We had a little bit of a late start. We were on the upper deck of the Bay Bridge, just past the cantilever section. Very suddenly, we felt a very strong hit, like someone hit us from behind. But no one had. We screamed. Our car jumped into the next lane. In just a few seconds the day, the week, everything had changed. We immediately tried to change from the baseball game on the radio to KGO to get the latest news. First we thought a tanker had hit a pylon under the bridge, then we looked for a “mushroom cloud”. Had someone bombed us? No radio reception. Everything went blank. We kept driving – thank God my brother was driving – all of the digital signs on the bridge and all clocks were off. We couldn’t see any lights. We kept creeping along and made our way to Fell Street. An old African American man was walking up the street and my brother yelled out to him, “Was that an earthquake?” He yelled back “What the F_ _ _ do you think?!” We began to see buildings that were crumbled, frantic people crying, still no lights, and fear began to set in.

We made our way to the B&B. We found my brother and family outside. We hugged, held on, and cried. We all talked at once. What a way to return to San Francisco. Their nanny from Switzerland had never been to SF. She was a mess. When it was safe to enter the B&B we did and tried to regroup. My brothers took off on foot to try and get some dinner. They found a pizza place open. They had real brick ovens with coals! Didn’t need to rely on electricity. They waited for about 1 1/2 hours in line and finally brought back food. My son, Thomas, was still drinking baby formula. Of course, our intent was not to spend the night when we set out for the evening, so we didn’t have enough formula with us. My brothers found a corner market later that evening, the whole stores contents on the floor, and rummaged through it and found baby formula for me!

We spent the night with my brother. All of the bridges were closed and we were afraid to move. Blankets were brought to us from the manager, and he was very kind to us. He checked several times to make sure we were all doing well and to see if we needed anything.

That small transistor radio became our lifeline. All of the adults were sitting in a circle around it, like a campfire. If not for the game, my brother would never have brought the radio! It was many hours into the night before electricity was restored and we could watch this event unfold. My young nephews didn’t understand any of it. They were in awe of all of the fire trucks, sirens, and fires they could see from the windows. They sat by the windows until they fell asleep counting fire trucks. Everyone sees things so differently.

We finally crept home the next day by way of the Golden Gate Bridge to the Richmond Bridge and then to Walnut Creek. The house was a mess. Kitchen drawers all pulled out, the TV cabinet had rolled into the middle of the family room, my jewelry box had spilled all over the floor, and dishes broken. We were all safe. I watched news all day for two days. Thank God we were all safe.

Adobo in Union City

Monica Espiritu

I had just turned 25. I was hanging out with my folks for an early dinner in front of the television in their little Union City house. Like most people in the Bay Area, we planned on watching the A’s and the Giants, just the three of us. Several people in their neighborhood pulled into their driveways around 4:30pm. My parents were already finished cooking dinner by the time I walked in the house.

My dad and I were in the kitchen spooning rice, adobo and vegetables into bowls for the dinner table when suddenly a rumbling began. My parents had experienced earthquakes in their youth in the Philippines. As a Bay Area kid, I’d gone through a handful of drills. In high school, I accused a kid in math class of kicking the back of my chair when in actuality we were in the midst of an earthquake, but I knew to jump under my desk when he said, “It wasn’t me!”

“Just another earthquake,” I thought in the nascent moments of the Loma Prieta.

I then found myself standing with my feet shoulder width apart, holding on to the counter and watching the lawn in the background roll in waves and my parents’ 25 foot mulberry tree sway. My dad set down the bowl he was carrying, kept his balance by holding onto the counter, and stared at the swaying tree. In my mind’s eye, the entire scene seemed to have moved in a weird suspended animation because I had enough time to glance in the other direction to the front yard through the living room’s picture window. I saw a couple of cars parked across the street ride asphalt waves. My mom was standing, slightly swaying, on our walkway watching the same scene.

After the rumbling and waves subsided, she came back in the house. My parents and I put the few books that tumbled off the family room shelves back in their usual places. We put all the food on the table. “Wow, that was a big one, ” my dad said nonchalantly. My mom and I agreed. We sat down to eat. My dad turned on the television as he had done hundreds of times in that house. We passed food and drinks back and forth to one another like another dinner we’d had together. Had we become desensitized to earthquakes?

Then, the clanging of silverware on plates and chitchat ceased as the image of the Cypress structure, flattened and with clouds of dust and debris surrounding it flashed on the TV screen. It brought a pall to my parents’ home. The Cypress structure where our family had driven time and time again since we relocated to the Bay Area from Hawaii. The stretch of Highway 17 that we loved because when my mom or dad drove on it at 60 miles an hour, we undulated. With the Cypress Structure in our little VW Squareback and later our Chevy Nova and VW Van. We used to ride the waves on that stretch of Highway 17 in our cars. It was suddenly gone and I felt my heart flattened along with it.

Carmel Photo Shoot

Tracy Wheeler

It was the time of day photographers call the ‘magic moment’ when the sun is soft and golden and generous. We were shooting an ad campaign at a ranch high on a hill above the Carmel Valley that we had made over to be the pretend home of a pretend family with impeccable pretend taste.

I was in a barn-turned-wardrobe room helping a little boy put on perfectly distressed jeans and a tiny leather jacket when we heard the horses outside scream. The dogs, some sort of hound, joined in, and then everything began to both roll and jump; confused by two distinct rhythms—one sultry and the other furiously impatient like a child kicking the back of a seat.

Fifteen seconds isn’t long except when it is. You know what I mean even if you haven’t been in an earthquake. It’s like falling and watching everything in slow motion with time enough to wonder if you’ll come out okay or end up in the hospital.

I brought the boy outside and to his mother and then made my way over to a model named John. We stood side-by-side and watched seismic waves ripple the top of the range across from us like a shudder moving through the body of an elephant. The trees like hairs as they waved together in one long motion. John put his arm around me and I felt joy, tremendous pulsating, electric, gorgeous joy. There’s a word for moments when what you think about the world and what’s happening are perfectly aligned. When there’s no gap between the idea of what’s happening or should be happening or you want to be happening and what is actually happening. I can’t remember what that word is because it pretty much never happens to me. But during the earthquake it did. I think because I stopped thinking all together and just was.

Then it stopped. Things went really, really quiet. The only sound I remember is the snort horses make when they’re pissed off but I might be making that up.

“Back to work. We’re losing the light!” yelled the producer.

Maybe it’s because we weren’t from California, or maybe we were all just selfish, but it wasn’t until we finished the last shot and realized that there were no lights on in the valley below that we understood something big might have happened.

For some inexplicable reason one of the books in the old house on Long Island where I grew up was a photographic account of the 1906 earthquake. Huge curlicue captions—Disaster! Destruction! Despair!—emblazoned the cover. Those are the images that filled my mind as we listened to the radio. Buildings and horses brought to their knees or toppled completely over, streets torn open, small blurry figures with the crisp panorama of the burning city behind them. Vintage images so removed from the present that once I might have thought they were pretend.

Retrieving Rose and Yaya

Reno Rapagnani

I was driving my car south on Divisadero Street when the car I was driving started rocking from front to back. I then looked to my right and I saw a wave that made the buildings rise and fall as the wave past through them. It was incomprehensible to see that happen. I then realized that we were having an earthquake: I immediately made a U turn and drove the opposite direction towards the Marina as my 2-year-old daughter, Rose, was there.

I got to the Marina and picked up Rose, as she had been with a family member. The scene on that block was unbelievable as gas from broken underground pipes was shooting like a jet through the broken street. The smell of gas was sickening and I expected an explosion at any moment.

As I got to the Marina, I realized that Mayor Art Agnos’ mother lived just a couple of blocks away from where I was, so I drove to Fillmore Street where I discovered that “Yaya” was trapped in her apartment. (I was the detail leader for Mayor Agnos.)

Yaya was stuck inside her home, as her front door was jammed because her building had settled. I was able to force the door open and I grabbed her hand. I wrote on the front door using her lipstick, “I GOT YAYA– RENO.”

I placed the Mayor’s mother in the car with my daughter. I then drove directly into the intersection that we all saw on TV with buildings on fire and other buildings collapsed onto the street.

It took several hours to drive the Mayor’s mother to the Mayor’s house and for the entire ride, Rose and Yaya were speechless. (If you know Rose, that was an amazing event.) We had a whole bunch of Guardian Angels with us that day.