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.

Dumbarton Bridge

Michael Tebow

I was young during the Loma Prieta Quake. Turned 7 that year. My family lived in Newark, in the East Bay towards the south end of the bay. There was 6 of us total, mom and dad, my older sister, older brother, me and then my younger sister. All us siblings were two years apart, so you can imagine the crap my mother had to deal with. My mother grew up in Palo Alto, so most of our time was spent there, including doctors and dentists appointments. That day was a Tuesday; we were all headed back to Newark from the dentist. My mom was a stay-at-home mom, so a day spent with all of us was very stressful.

We were on 101 almost to the exit to get into 84 and make our way across the Dumbarton Bridge and head back to Newark. My mom was upset about the noise we were making and then felt her car shake. She cursed and pulled over and at the same time noticing a motorcyclist and other motorists pulling over as well. I think she all at once realized what was happening. As a California/Bay Area native she had felt earthquakes before, and having seen no damage in our immediate area, she pulled back onto the freeway and we continued home.

Not long after we got over the bridge did my mother realize how large and potentially deadly this earthquake had been for her four children. The KGO transmission towers that were a symbol to us kids as “we’re almost home” had been heavily damaged. My mother’s first thought was that she just took her four young kids over a bridge that might had been damaged as well. She later realized that the bridge was closed to traffic soon after we made it across. Mostly because of the severe damage to the SF-Oakland Bay Bridge.

We made it home without a scratch and realized the full destructive power of the earthquake. Our house was fine except for some cracked sheetrock and a few pictures that had fallen. Watching the news, we knew that we were extremely lucky.

KGO towers 1989

Lake Merritt

Monisha Bajaj

On October 17, 1989 I was in the 8th grade and at a soccer game we were playing in one of the grassy areas around Lake Merritt. In the running and jumping of the game, I didn’t realize it was an earthquake until I saw this huge art deco apartment building across the street from where we were—the Bellevue-Staten building—swaying and then feeling the ground moving under my feet.

We moved to the center of the park area and watched as loose bricks from the apartment building started crashing down into the windshields of parked cars on the street below. We could hear the glass breaking loudly since this was before car alarms that would drown such sounds out. My friends and I just huddled close and waited it out.

Lake Merritt

The coaches had no way of communicating with our parents (no cell phones back then!) and it was after 10pm that night by the time we got back to our school given all the traffic. Many parents were waiting in the parking lot, nervously chatting and so relieved when we finally showed up.

As news broke the next day, one of my classmate’s cousins was one of the people crushed when the Bay Bridge broke and we heard of many other harsh stories from the quake. I was thankful that the inconvenience of being stranded by the Lake was the only hardship I faced that day.

UC Berkeley Computer Center

Bob Callaway

I was sitting at the computer desk in my office, working at a Macintosh IIcx.  (Hard to believe now, but the processor speed was only 16 MHz!).  The office was on the second floor of Evans Hall at UC Berkeley, in those days the primary location for campus computer center staff.  Evans Hall is a 10-story concrete monolith.

Mac IIcx 1989

Just after 5:00 pm, the building suddenly jolted sideways.  It was a single, very sharp jolt.  I remained in my chair, hyper-alert for what might follow.  I turned toward my other desk and eyed the safe space below it.  But there was no further shaking. The power remained on.  I thought to myself, “That’s the strongest tremor I’ve ever felt.”  But I resumed work on the task at hand.

A few minutes later, having reached a good stopping point, I got up and went out into the corridor to chat with colleagues about the quake.  Quite a few people were on deck.  Some had heard alarming reports such as “the Bay Bridge fell down.”

Already a couple of colleagues had retrieved a TV set from a programmer’s lair and were setting it up in a corner office.  Soon we were watching the news.

As the scale of the disaster emerged, I knew I couldn’t to go home that night.  I arranged to stay with friends who lived in an Albany high-rise.  I also tried calling a neighbor in San Francisco but couldn’t get through because the phone system was overloaded.

I exchanged email with my niece on the East Coast, letting her know I was OK and asking her to inform my sister and others in the family.  My niece, a techie from an early age, was accustomed to sending Unix email on the Arpanet in the 1980s, as was I.

That night, like so many people, my friends and I sat transfixed in front of the TV set as shocking footage was shown over and over.

The next day I went to work.  The news seemed even worse, with reports of many deaths.   I tried to contact various friends.  I tried again to reach my neighbor, but couldn’t.  I had no idea what had happened to my apartment.  That night I stayed with my friends in Albany again.

Two days after the quake, I drove home to San Francisco via the Richmond and Golden Gate bridges.  As I passed near the Marina, my heart sped up as I remembered the images of collapsed apartments there.  My anxiety was reinforced by a disaster I had experienced in a different apartment building about five years earlier — an arson fire that had made all the tenants homeless one winter morning.

Reaching my building on Pierce St, north of Alamo Square Park, I was hugely relieved to find that it had suffered only minor damage.  In my own apartment, there were small cracks in a couple of walls, and some things had fallen off shelves.  A couple of bookcases had shifted several inches, but hadn’t fallen.  The only lasting damage was a triangular dent in the oak floor where a ceramic teapot had dropped six feet.  The minimal effect was a testament to our location, on bedrock.

Soon I confirmed that none of my friends were harmed either.  It was a bit surreal, that feeling of escape.

The neighbor I’d been trying to reach, who had been at home when the quake hit, gave me her report.  In her usual emphatic manner (blonde Italian from New Jersey), she said the building had vibrated like crazy.  No doubt the effect was amplified by the hundreds of tchotchkes in her apartment.

Pussycat Theater

Rhonda Winter

In October of 1989 I lived behind a razor wire chain link fence in a minuscule and squalid studio apartment right next to the 24 freeway that was also just a block from the old, pink Pussycat movie house at 51st and Telegraph in Oakland. Random seedy men frequently stood around the back alley of the porno theater near my house, furiously masturbating. I had just broken up with alcoholic #1, and was horribly disillusioned with the overpriced art school experience at CCAC; was about to start studying photography at SFSU in January (where I would soon meet my most excellent friend Eliza).


Had just finished my dreary shift working in a one-hour photo shop cubicle on Telegraph Avenue; had just gotten home, was exhausted, lying on my lumpy futon mattress staring at the peeling stucco paint on the dirty ceiling, and feeling utterly depressed.

When the ground started shaking I nonchalantly thought to myself, “Oh, it’s just another earthquake.” Having grown up in California my entire life, these natural events were somewhat common, and not such a big deal. But the shaking continued, and became much more intense; when I tried to get up to go outside, the ground felt like trying to walk on an unstable sea of buckling Jello.

Once outside in the night air, I looked across the rush hour congested tangle of freeways and saw in the distance a massive section of the Bay Bridge just limply hanging down toward the sea, like some kind of horribly flaccid and broken erector set.

Highway 101

Jenifer Wofford

I wasn’t even in town when it happened, ironically enough. Perhaps that’s why I’m so interested in others’ stories.

I had been down in San Luis Obispo for a couple of days, visiting James, Dave and Eric at Cal Poly, and had left there to return north around 4 pm, driving solo–one of my favorite things to do. I remember the road feeling a little strange for a few seconds (tremors were in fact felt pretty far south), but 101’s got plenty of hills and curves, so I didn’t even think anything of it. It had been a weird, emotional stay in SLO, and I spent the drive alone trying to figure some things out: getting a little teary here and there in that adolescent-girl way before triumphantly deciding that everything was going to be OK, and that life was just amazing.

As I approached San Jose around 7 pm, I was surprised at how badly snarled traffic was at that hour. It was pretty dark at that point: I remember puzzling over the endless strings of red tail lights in haphazard patterns. I never listened to the radio in my ’85 VW Golf, so I didn’t even think to turn it on for news or traffic updates: I had way too many awesome cassette mix-tapes to listen to, after all.

As soon as I walked in the front door of my parents’ house in Walnut Creek, I was confronted with the enormity of what I’d just missed. My parents had been panicked since they had no idea where I was when the quake hit, and were relieved to find out that I was fine. I just remember feeling an intense sort of cognitive dissonance, realizing that my self-absorbed teenage crises, musings and revelations on the drive up had absolutely zero connection to the actual disaster that had transpired at the same exact time.

Jam Aisle

Ann Marie Lawson

That day was really warm, still. The light was the perfect golden haze that happens in SF in fall. I lived in Oakland and worked in SF but I had that day off. I had driven into the city to buy myself a birthday present, a pair of cowboy boots from this place over on Valencia. After I went out to the Sunset to meet a friend who lived out there. We walked out to Ocean Beach to lay in the sun and read books.

I had a big debate with myself on whether to stay in the city and enjoy the weather or head back to the east bay and beat the traffic from the ballgame. I decided to be sensible and headed home. I lived about 5 minutes off of the Bay Bridge in Oakland and I got home at 4:50 PM.

I had had just enough time to get in the door and turn on MTV when the quake hit. I got in a door way and watched the room sway. I keep saying “That’s enough, that’s enough.” It kept going. The electricity went out and a few things fell over, but not much because of the cheap paint that the shelves were painted with acted like museum wax.

When it was over I panicked: got a battery operated radio, turned it on and stepped outside. I thought there would be people running round, panicked and freaking out, but nothing. everything looked normal. I thought I was have some sort of freak out, that I had imagined the quake.

There was nothing on the radio for several minutes. I tried the phone. No dial tone. It was an old rotary phone and I pushed the “hang up” button until I got a dial tone. I called my family on the peninsula. Everyone was shaken but ok. I worked the phone again and got my brother at his auto repair . Thank God none of the cars came off the lifts. I worked the phone again and got my other brother who basically lived at the epicenter all OK. That made me feel a bit better.

Finally the reports started to come in. About the bridge, the fires, the freeway collapse. I walked over to the grocery store where my boyfriend worked and it finally looked like something had happened. All the merchandise was on the ground. I helped them clean up the jam aisle which was a sticky mess.

Home in San Leandro

Sheena L.

I was seven years old and home from school when the shaking started. I was watching Square One Television (a kids’ show about math!), my favorite show. I remember clinging to the corner of my couch, and as my favorite show went to static and the huge orange tree outside our window started swaying violently, I went from confused to dismayed. I remember staying very still and thinking, “is this ever going to end?”

Mervyns and BART Barf

Allan B.

Oh man, I was a 19 year old retail clerk in the Mervyn’s break room when the earthquake happened. It was just me and two other clerks, both African American women. (That old Mervyn’s no longer exists: it was in the El Portal Shopping Center in San Pablo.)

The quake hit and I was too embarrassed to actually hide under the table but when the tiles in the false ceiling started getting dislodged, I went under the table. I was also thinking how fucked it up was that I was 19 and if I died, I would die a retail store clerk and not even a clerk at a real store like the Gap.

mervyns 1989

Everyone in the store lined up to use the pay phones, but the lines were super busy and you could only get through by yelling really loudly into the phone, which of course meant you had to hear what everybody else’s conversations were like with their family.

I was living in Hercules then and going to the nearby community colleges (both DVC and Contra Costa) to get enough credits to transfer to Cal. If I didn’t have Cal to graduate from, I don’t know what would have happened to me.

One thing I really liked though was that BART was like a booze party for weeks afterwards since it was running all night. I’d go clubbing (which in the Bay Area means closing out the club at 2 AM like a boss) and hop on BART which was full of people from the clubs.

There would be guys on the BART vomiting from too much partying and they would STILL try to hit on someone, smelly barf breath and all. I was in shock when one of them actually managed to get a number. Halloween was great that year for East Bay people since we no longer needed to drive our asses back home. BART was our designated driver.

Downtown Berkeley BART

Gail M.

I was working for the University of California in an office in downtown Berkeley on Milvia when the earthquake hit. However, I had already left work and was waiting for the BART train in the downtown station on Shattuck. I sighed, “The BART train is late AGAIN!”

After a bit, we heard an announcement that the Bay Area was hit by an earthquake and all trains were stopped. Those of us waiting underground had no idea there was an earthquake, proving the BART system is very safe!

shattuck BART 1989

When we hurried upstairs there was chaos on the streets. No stop lights were working and cars were maneuvering around each other as if they were props in a disaster film. I learned later that the building I had just exited had visibly swayed back and forth to the terror of those left inside, but no one was hurt.

I was able to contact my daughter in Oakland and one of her roommates drove me home to Walnut Creek through the Caldecott Tunnel, proceeding with great trepidation in case there was an aftershock.

1989 was an era with no ubiquitous cell phones so I worried most of the night about my husband, who I knew was in a carpool crossing the Bay Bridge. He has his own story to tell, but the end of mine is that he returned home safe and sound.