No Touch Car Wash

Fred Schein

Late that afternoon, I set out for SFO to meet some friends arriving from New York. I decided my car needed to be washed so it looked good for them.

I stopped at the No Touch car wash at Divisadero and Oak Streets. My car was soon moving through the “wash tunnel”. At this place, you could go inside and watch your car through a glass window, which I did. Two SF policemen were standing next to me. Apparently, at that time, the SFPD had a contract to get cars washed there. Suddenly, one of the policemen swayed into me and I was momentarily offended. Then I realized we were in an earthquake.

A lot of car stuff fell off the shelves and the manager said to go outside. The power was off and my car was inside, covered with soap. The manager told the staff to drive the cars out and the cashier to refund everyone. He then told the staff to take a hose and rinse off the soap. The staff was so nervous that they weren’t hitting my car with the hose water. I took the hose and completed the rinse.

Not knowing what to do, I decided to go to SFO. I got into the pickup/drop off “horseshoe” road and the traffic all but stopped. It took me about 35 minutes to work my way around and get back out to the freeway. No cell phones then. I had no choice, but to try to return to my home in Mill Valley.

I got onto 19th Ave where the traffic was bumper-to-bumper and the stoplights not working. Students from SFSU attempted to direct traffic, which only made matters worse. My car was standard shift. It took me about an hour and a half to get back to Marin by which time my leg ached from endless clutching. That was the worst traffic jam I have ever been in. One lane of Park Presidio, just before the MacArthur tunnel had sunk and it was reduced to one lane. I remember seeing AC Transit buses, which seemed so odd to me. Of course, they couldn’t use the Bay Bridge and were heading north to try to get across the Richmond Bridge

There were many small collisions on 19th Ave and Park Presidio. I recall seeing and hearing unbelievable courtesy. As these tiny accidents happened, drivers would get out to look for possible damage and every one of them seemed ready to take responsibility – “I’m sorry, it was my fault”, “No, it was my fault”, “No it was mine.” It was almost surreal.

When I finally got across the Bridge, I pulled into the vista point to look back at the City which was completely dark except for two things – the fires in the Marina which were my first real recognition of how serious this was and little islands of light here and there. It took me a while to realize that they were the hospitals that had emergency power.

My friends called me the next morning and it turned out that they had come within a few hundred feet at SFO. Their flight landed almost at the moment of the earthquake and they were told to move through the terminal and outside as it was thought there was a danger of the terminal collapsing. Without their luggage, they made their way to a rental car area and somehow got a car. Thinking it would be dangerous to try to go to the City, they drove south on 101. They began stopping at the big hotels and couldn’t find a room. They finally got to the San Carlos Howard Johnson. They asked the desk clerk if there was a room and were told, “I only have one left”. My friends said, “We’ll take it.” The clerk, still nervous about all that had happened, automatically said, “Smoking or non-smoking?” My friends stared at each other.

I drove down to meet them. They returned their car and picked up their luggage.

I so wish I had had a camera that night. Today, I would take dozens of pictures with my phone.

Pink Bike on Bancroft

Celine Parreñas Shimizu

As a Cal undergrad in 1989, I was 19 and working passionately, fervently and feverishly on a magazine I started by and about women of color. I got to campus at all hours on my pink, shimmery sleek gold bike, with a straightforward wire basket holding my bag, an over the shoulder tote, second hand, like the bike from Ashby Flea Market which cost $10. The only thing new was its bell. The bike got me from North Oakland to campus and my office at Eshleman Hall.

In those days, I dressed like a Persian carpet, thick corduroy patches, patterns mismatched and always like a bib on my chest, a big top hat with velvet flowers over long hair, and long skirts, gown-like and heavy or genie-like pants. The colors were all emerald green or ruby…and of course my uniform velvet or leather black. To ride to campus on my bike, I squeezed the bottoms of my skirt or pants, and tied them together like a scrunchy into itself.

At the time of the earthquake, I got to Bancroft, alongside cars on Telegraph, and I thought someone was tugging on my bike: I turned my head ready to say something, and no one was there. I looked up ahead of me and then got my boots down on the ground when I noticed the flagpoles on campus swaying super side-to-side, stretching so low almost to the ground. I knew then it was something extraordinary.

Mission Dolores

Delfina Piretti

I was working as a mental health treatment specialist in the Martinez Jail. I lived in SF. I had an intuition I should leave early to beat the Giants game traffic. My coworkers argued that my logic was crazy but I pushed and got out of there, over the bridge, picked up my 5-year-old daughter from Children’s Day School on Dolores and 16th.

We were in front of Mission Dolores, in the car, when the earthquake hit. Traffic stopped. My daughter started laughing. I think she thought it was some kind of amusement park ride trick i was doing with the car (?)The woman in the car next to me turned to me and exclaimed: “What are we supposed to do now, just drive on!!!!!!” She was hysterical.

The church steeple was swaying and the telephone lines looked like swinging jump ropes.

I tend to respond well in crisis and I think I adapted well enough to stay present for Haley and get us home. It was shocking. I can’t describe the relief I felt that I listened to my intuition to leave work early or I would have been stuck in the east bay or even possibly on the bridge.

We headed home, passing by Duboce Park when we just happened to pass by my friend Dana who was also driving. At that moment I remembered Dana and I had made an “earthquake plan” like they tell you to do in the earthquake prep instructions: Make a plan where you will meet family and friends. My plan was that I wanted to be with my daughter and would meet my husband and friends in Duboce Park. My plan was realized be it by intuition or good luck!

We went home and Haley burst into tears when she found her room in disarray. My neighbor was hysterical- frantic, looking for her keys- God only knows why. A kind man came by to help us turn the gas off.

We had the radio on and the mayor was saying something reassuring like: “Don’t worry- we’ve got things under control-” but before he finished his sentence, the connection cut out.

People came together in a way I’ve never seen before. Earthquakes are great equalizers. People were more compassionate and we helped each other out. It didn’t matter if we were strangers.

Terror in the Tub

Courtney Warren

My arms and legs extended in total relaxation as I lay soaking up warmth and listening to the echo of the water. The oldest of four, I’d enjoyed the freedom of alone time in the bath for a few years by the time I was eight, and it wasn’t unusual that the rest of my family might be occupied in other parts of our house on Ames Avenue in Palo Alto. I was so absorbed in the experience, maybe because it began in such a small personal bubble, submerged and closed off from everything, that I don’t remember whether family members were even home during the event (later, I learned they were).

With no apparent transition, the water went from soothing to sloshing. I sat abruptly. Miniature tidal waves lapped at my chest while I froze in place, trying to process what was happening. “Earthquake” didn’t cross my mind. In school they taught us guidelines for how to respond, but what it would feel like to be in a big quake was beyond my comprehension. My heart thumped so hard that I was only aware of the water’s movement, and not the earth shaking it.

We weren’t especially religious, though my family occasionally went to church, and I’d attended a church-run preschool. Imagination filled in holes in my vague understanding of Heaven and Hell. I thought about religion often in relation to my grandpa, who’d died of cancer in my lifetime, my brother’s leukemia, and kids we met through Touchstone, a support group for families of children with life-threatening diseases. I was keenly aware that children aren’t immune to horrible things, and this dictated how I interpreted what happened. As the bath rocked me to and fro, it was a supernatural experience. I could’ve started believing in ghosts, or aliens, or become a religious fanatic. Without the experience to understand it, my mind leapt to the most logical conclusion it could piece together: God was angry, and the world was ending (years later, I learned that my mom screamed, “IT’S THE APOCALYPSE!” at my four-year-old sister).

The world is ending. I’m going to die. I have to get out of here. These thoughts were screaming in my mind as I scrambled out of the tub, dripping wet, and ran like hell out the bathroom door, around corners, and down the long, carpeted hallway toward the front door.

Blinding heat rushed to my head, my chest was pounding and I can’t remember now if the earth was still shaking then – adrenaline had kicked in and it didn’t matter. I still didn’t understand what was happening as I grabbed the knob, burst through the door and out into the street.

I stood, a fleshy white spot on the dark asphalt, taking in the unexpected calm. Here, it didn’t feel like the world was ending. Everything was still. Up and down the street, I could see others had come out, too. Most of their faces were far away and fuzzy, but, like me, they stood quietly, looking around.

The dense, eerie silence crept through my veins and slowed my racing heart. Neighbors milled about along the road – dazed, but unhurt. I looked down at my body, confirming my continued existence, and relief and clarity washed over me. I was naked in the street, with all the neighbors there to see it, but I was alive.

Underground on MUNI

Bruce Black

We were somewhere between Van Ness and Church Street stations. The train’s power went out but the backup lights stayed on and we rolled to a stop. It was hot. I was on my way home from work to catch the game. No one on the MUNI, including the driver, had a clue what had happened. We didn’t feel the earthquake. It was over an hour before the driver let us know that there had been an earthquake and another hour before they were able to walk us out of there. No one had a flashlight. Not even the driver.

The driver opened the doors because it was so hot and stuffy. But every once in a while he decided to close them again. Some people stood out on the walkway.

We exited at the Church Street station and I saw the column of smoke over the Marina. Windows along Market Street were broken.

Clayton Cul-De-Sac

Shanna M.

In 1989 I was in the 5th grade and living in Clayton, in the Mt. Diablo foothills, on a cul-de-sac that ended at the border of Mt. Diablo State Park. There were maybe half a dozen families on the cul-de-sac that had children within a year or two of my age. It was wonderful.

Because it was so beautiful outside that day, I was next door in my friend’s front yard, playing a game of re-enacting the Nickelodeon show “Finders Keepers,” and then it hit. I’d felt a few quakes before… but this one made my stomach drop and my knees buckle. My surroundings appeared to gently roll up and down. I don’t really remember any noises.

My friend and I looked at each other, and while my mind was blank, her face crumpled into tears. Her dad burst out of the house laughing with a jolly “WOW that was a big one!!”

My mind stayed blank as I went into my house, which just felt like the thing to do… everything in the house seemed fine.
Then the news reports began.

The logic of the situation grew into a personal scare. My dad is an independent contractor who drives all over the Bay Area every day, and we had no idea where he was. The phones were out. He had a very early version of a cell phone– a huge module that had to be mounted on his dash and was all curly cords and unwieldy antennas– but with the network down it did us no good.

All we could think about was the chopper cam feeds of collapsed freeways. My older sister and some neighborhood friends and I sat on a curb for a few hours and talked and cried. It got dark.

Finally, around 10 PM, my dad gets home. Everything was alright. For us anyway.

The next day in school, we all spent an hour during class talking about our stories, and everyone else was alright in Clayton.

A few months later the classroom next door to us pulled a prank– we were in a portable building at the school and the floors were pretty light and hollow. The teacher next door cleverly had her students pound their feet to mimic an earthquake, starting small, then crescendoing and tapering off. We fell for it, until we could hear their laughing through the flimsy wall. They did it a few times until some of us realized that, even with the pounding of 30 pairs of 5th-grader feet, the lights weren’t swinging like they do during a quake.

To this day, if I’m not sure if it’s an earthquake or a heavy truck driving by, I look up at the lights to see if they’re swinging.

Candlestick Banners

Tony Howard

My grandma has had Giants season tickets for as long as I can remember, and she always made sure that each person in the family got a chance to see a game…I was lucky enough to receive the World Series tickets with my father. I was 22 at the time.

We started our journey in Mendocino County that day, stopping in Sonoma County to pick up a couple deli sandwiches and some spirit-like refreshments.

We arrived at Candlestick, parked the truck and had a nice tailgate. As I drank my tall can of Sapporo and looked around at the festivities, one thing caught my interest: some of the banners and flags that were tangled in the light towers above the stadium. And there was a person climbing up one of the towers to untangle those banners.

After our tailgate picnic and drinks, we filed into the stadium and found our seats. Once we were in our seats we were getting ready for the game: the stadium was packed and the crowd was ready for baseball.

It was then that I heard the covers around the stadium lights start to bang loudly into each other, making a clanging sound. Seconds later we were riding our stadium seats while a very intense earthquake moved through. I felt a sharp pain in my shoulders and neck, and when I turned and looked, the lady behind me was digging her fingernails into my shoulders, screaming and crying: I felt bad for her and I wasn’t sure how to ask her to stop.

I then remembered the guy that had been climbing the light tower earlier; I looked over at that light tower to see him clinging to it for dear life as it was swinging.

It seemed like it lasted forever, but I am sure it was a very short time. It was surreal: time seemed to slow down and almost stand still.

Of course, I saw the players moving around the field with their families. I was jealous– I wanted to be on the ground, not in the upper deck!

Post-earthquake, my dad and some others started to chant, “Let’s play ball, let’s play ball!” We really didn’t know how serious the quake was until we started hearing reports from a transistor radio of a neighboring fan. It was then we realized that not only would we not be watching baseball but that we also didn’t know how we would get home.

We had heard the Bay Bridge and the Cypress Structure had collapsed and that there were large fires in the city. Our first thought was that we would go to some of our extended family that lived in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Once we got out to the truck and continued to listen to the radio, we heard that the Golden Gate Bridge was still open so we decided we would try and go home to Mendocino County before it was potentially closed.

While we were stuck in traffic in SF, working our way through the Hunters Point and the Bay View District, we watched groups of young people breaking windows and beginning to loot some of the stores. One of the looters spotted us in my truck, and yelled to his friends that he had found a pickup truck for them to use. I pulled my truck out of traffic, up on to the sidewalk, and drove out of there as fast as I could. I don’t remember stopping until Marin County.

Just off Sloat in a Chevy Nova

Melissa McMahon

I used to hear “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” as a cultural reference point of previous generations. Now I hear, “where were you when the earthquake hit?” I was a senior at Lincoln High School and had just finished a tennis match against Balboa. My doubles partner, Thea, and I won our match by forfeiture because the other team didn’t have enough players. Thea walked to BART and I walked to my dad’s house on Cayuga Street to see if I could get a ride home to my grandma’s house in the Sunset. Like most of the Sunset, it was a 1940s post WWII tract house.

We rumbled along in his 1976 rusted out Chevy Nova, which I liked to call the blue machine because it kept rumbling no matter what got in its way. My 17-year-old brain found this completely embarrassing because you could hear it coming before you could see it, much like the Blue Angels, but not nearly as cool. However, getting a ride in anything was always better than MUNI. At the time, I believed my boyfriend’s brand new brown Hyundai Excel hatchback was much cooler, despite the jokes about Hyundais.

We headed down Sloat Blvd towards Ocean Beach and I hoped for fog. As we approached the zoo, we turned right onto 46th Ave, just past Sloat Garden Center and continued to Ulloa Street and made another right. As we crossed 45th Avenue up the slight hill, the car began to jostle as if all the wheels had fallen off. I looked around searching for some evidence of what we’d run over and I saw two boys on their bicycles jump off their bikes in confusion. Their bikes fell to the ground as my dad stopped just in front of the house. I quickly realized it was an earthquake and we watched the road finish rolling and undulating. The asphalt moved in slow motion much how I imagine lava might appear to flow. When it stopped we went into the house to discover the TV had tipped over off of the rickety metal rolling cart just missing my pregnant aunt. Shelves had tipped over but no one was hurt.

We tried to find a radio station but they had gone silent. When some finally came back on the air, we began to hear the possible damage left in the wake of this 6.9 quake. The World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics was underway, but ended before it began. The Marina District was on fire. Buildings had collapsed. People were trapped in buildings. People were trapped on BART. Was Thea trapped, I wondered? Public transit was at a standstill. Traffic was snarled. Power was lost nearly everywhere. TV stations were down. Phones lines were jammed. Freeways had collapsed. The Bay Bridge had fallen into the Bay. We didn’t yet know if the whole bridge had fallen into the Bay or just a section, nor did we know if both the upper and lower decks had collapsed or just one.

I think we were in disbelief at first. How bad could it be? Weren’t we prepared for earthquakes? Was the news exaggerating? Confused and shocked, I searched for a clock to see what time it was and it was just after 5pm, right about the time my boyfriend would be on the Bay Bridge driving his boss home. I managed to reach him hours later and he had not been on the bridge because his boss was out of town.

Anxious in Venice

Valerie Imus

In 1989 I dropped out of SF State and spent a few months backpacking around Europe by myself. I’d just arrived in Venice and checked into the convent where I was staying because it was the cheapest place in town, and was getting on a vaporetto with the cute Australian I’d met on the train from Rome. We started chatting with some other friendly and equally grimy tourists who asked where we were from. When I said San Francisco, they looked suddenly uneasy and mumbled “Oh, man, I’m sorry.” I didn’t have any idea what they were talking about. They said, “There was an earthquake. The Golden Gate Bridge fell into the ocean.” And then they immediately got off the boat.

I felt like I’d just been punched in the chest. I tore off to try to call someone at home. The only way to make calls then was at international phone centers, which were these unmarked fluorescent-lit smoky rooms lined with tiny cells with white phones on countertops scarred with graffiti carved into them. You had to wait in line, give the guy at the counter a handful of lira and a phone number, wait for the little light to come on, try your luck to get through, and when it didn’t work, start over again.

The poor cute Australian guy and I spent the next ten hours wandering around Venice, alternately trying to call my boyfriend Paul in San Francisco and getting drunk on red wine. I don’t know if the guy felt sorry for me and didn’t want to leave me alone or thought he was going to get lucky since I was so freaked out and needed comforting. Finally a call went through and Paul picked up the phone, obviously also drunk with a loud party going on in the background. He said, “Everything is closed except the liquor stores, so we’re having a party!” The only damage had been to the top of my turntable when some heavy sculpture fell on it.

Somehow even though I was unbelievably relieved, I was also pissed off that I’d spent the day so full of anxiety for no apparent reason. I said goodnight to the cute Australian and stumbled back to the convent. I’d forgotten all about their 9pm curfew. There was one tiny nun sitting up at a table by the door waiting for me, hunched over her rosary praying for my family. I didn’t have it in me to tell her that my boyfriend and friends were busy having an epic party and my family was safe at home in Michigan, just thanked her for her kindness and told her they were all safe under the protection of her prayers and went off to sleep in my bunk as the sun was rising.

Stuffed Animals and Earthquake Dresses

Laura Wilson

I was five years old and living in Newark when the earthquake hit. My eleven year-old sister was watching me while my dad cut firewood in the side yard, and in order to distract me from bugging her while she did homework, she allowed me to play with her stuffed animals I rarely got permission to enjoy. I had them set up in a circle around me when the earth started shaking. My sister yelled at me to run to the door jamb, and we both did.

As soon as the shaking stopped, we walked through the house looking for damage. We found a plant that had fallen, spilling dirt all over the ground. We saw that one of my dad’s golfing trophies had fallen and broke. We were in the playroom picking up my Sesame Street books that had fallen when an aftershock hit. It was so quick that it had ended before we even got to the closest door jamb, and that was when my dad entered the house, telling us he could see the telephone poles swaying from where he had been in the side yard.

I remember waiting what felt like forever for my mom to get home from where she worked in Hayward. It was probably a couple hours at the most realistically. I don’t remember what I was wearing that day, but my mom always referred to the dress she had on as her “earthquake dress”, so I still remember what it looked like to this day.

The scariest part, to me, was not having electricity that night. I had never had to live by candlelight, and I didn’t like it. My sister and I went to her friend’s house that lived down the street. I remember playing with her American Girl doll by flashlight while she and my sister talked about the bay bridge collapsing, scared out of my mind.

The next morning I didn’t want to go to school. I had only been in kindergarten a little over a month, and I didn’t want another earthquake to hit when I was away from my mom. My teacher started a collection of earthquake snacks in a big garbage can, and my mom contributed some of my favorite foods to it. I remember wanting to eat the food but NOT wanting another earthquake, especially not at school. Now that I’m a kindergarten teacher myself, I still hope for the sake of my students that there is not an earthquake when we’re at school. I wouldn’t want them to experience an earthquake without their moms like I did.

For the longest time after the quake, I wouldn’t play with my sister’s stuffed animals. When my mom tried to donate them to charity when I was a teenager, though, I refused to let her do it. They were my earthquake buddies, and I insisted on keeping them.