Chinatown Staircase

Natalie Shew

I remember Loma Prieta. I was almost 3 1/2 years old. I was in my Chinatown home, situated on a sturdy hill at Powell and Broadway. I remember standing at the bottom of our 26 step metal staircase next to my great Aunt Nellie. At the top was my grandma.

The door next to me was an old glass door with a wooden frame. We were getting ready to leave when it started shaking.

I looked up the stairs towards my grandma and asked, “What’s that?!?”
She replied, “It’s an earthquake.”
I said, “A what?
And after the shaking stopped I ran up the stairs towards her.

I don’t think I was scared, but more in shock of feeling something so strange. I don’t remember additional details, but my grandma has told me we were going out shopping for groceries and that we ended up staying home instead. She also said not a single thing fell.

As I grew up, every time I visited the Academy of Sciences, my favorite thing was the earthquake simulator; I thought that thing was so cool. It wasn’t until I became a lot older than I realized how dangerous earthquakes were.

On The Air

Wendy Tokuda

I was at Candlestick Park, field anchoring for the World Series, when the shaking started. When the masts on the news vans began to sway, we moved to a safe area and could see the concrete parking lot roll in waves like Jell-O. Then people started leaving the stadium in droves, everyone scared and anxious about loved ones.

Sports Anchor and great guy, Wayne Walker, came out to join our news crew and we broadcast from Candlestick when we were able to get a signal. The early reports coming in were often inaccurate, for example- we heard that the bay bridge had collapsed.

As it got dark, we drove back to the station- it was kind of surreal; quiet and dark with no streetlights and no one on the streets. Then, I joined Dave McElhatton on the update desk in the newsroom. Power was out, so the engineers used generators to get us on the air. I was sitting next to the sweetest man in television and we were both able to get ahold of our families to make sure all was okay. My daughters were in grade school- the five year old was at home with our sitter, my husband at the time picked up our eight year old from Hebrew school. Joe Fonzi joined us and talked about the scene inside the stadium. Once we knew our families were safe, we could really get to work.

We were on the air into the wee hours, getting updates from fire and police, and phone calls from people all over the Bay Area telling us what was happening in their neighborhood. People were excited (not in a good way), scared, and often kind of in shock. Soon we were able to get a wider picture of the areas worst hit– the Marina, the Cypress, and Santa Cruz. It was a real lesson in the way earthquakes can work: liquefaction, unreinforced concrete = a problem, the more serious damage spread out in pockets across the bay area.

Kate Kelly and Loren Nancarrow took over, and one of our engineers who lived a couple of blocks away let me sleep on his couch. In the morning, I went back, wearing the same blouse I had stored at the station, because it was cotton and comfortable and like, who cares?

In the light of day, the damage was clearer and the story turned to the heroism of some, and the kindness of many. That was extraordinary- how people came together in the Bay Area in a way we’d never seen before.

A Parent’s Eye View

Elyse Jacobs

“I’m going home to lie down. I’ll be back soon,” I told her teachers. I felt off but, other than a slight dizziness, it was nothing I could put a finger on. Later, I’d wonder if like others of the animal kingdom, I was sensitive to the quake’s impending arrival.

I’d come to pick up my daughter from her preschool on Grove and Baker. I, too, attended as a part-time artist-in-residence, developing a program of peace education using puppets and the expressive arts.

I’d returned to and just closed the door of my apartment when the building began to sway. Stand under a doorway voiced an inner command dictated by years of living in earthquake country. After the first few head bangs against the doorframe, I realized I’d need to do more than stand.

As I stood bracing myself with outstretched arms, my thoughts were on my five year old, five blocks away. I could only pray that the seismic proofing, just completed on her school, was effective. Waiting out those 15-20 seconds before I could stumble disoriented down three flights of stairs seemed endless.

Once outside, I observed with some curiosity what can best be described as visual vibrations, after-images left hanging in space as the quake subsided. They would form, multiply and disappear as I raced down Grove Street and my beloved daughter. “Let her be safe, let her be safe.”

Arriving at her preschool, I yanked open the door. Inside, a young teacher sat on a tiny chair in the lobby. “The bay bridge collapsed,” he whispered clearly shocked, as the shaky voices of newscasters quietly streamed from the large silver boom-box on the low round table.

At that moment there was only one voice I wanted to hear. “Mommmmmmmy!!!” One lone child stood beside the child-sized drinking fountain in the hallway, my child. I forced myself to slow to a walk, giving myself a moment to appear calm and in control while she gleefully shouted, “We had an earthquake!”

On the day the earth violently shook, I felt every parent’s terror of being separated from their child during a disaster. My panic lasted only as long as it took to run those endless 5 blocks. For other parents, relief would not come so quickly.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Game Three

Leanna M. Dawydiak

My memories of the Loma Prieta quake are so vivid that it could have happened yesterday.

The day of the quake, I had been looking forward to going to World Series Game 3 at Candlestick Park. I had great seats because my husband, Reno Rapagnani, was the Chief of Security for the Mayor of San Francisco, Art Agnos, so I was going to get to sit with his staff just left of home plate along the third base line. I had driven out there with my father Gene Dawydiak, stepson Reno Jr. and my sister-in-law Diane: Gene and Reno Jr. were sitting in the upper deck but Diane was below with me. We had planned to meet back at the car after the game we were sure we were going to win. Reno was busy handling things for the Mayor and I had no idea where he was.

In any case, just before the game was to start, I was looking out towards the Sony Jumbotron and suddenly I felt like there was movement under my feet and the stadium seemed to move in a circular direction; a shift, if you will, and I think it was towards the right. I could actually SEE the movement. I can only describe it like Candlestick Park was a cup on a saucer and someone was twisting the cup on top of the saucer. Being a native San Franciscan, I knew we had just had an earthquake, but I didn’t worry too much as I had been through many in my life. I think it was the “neophytes” who alerted me that this was no regular earthquake so I got moving, trying to make my way up to where my dad was sitting.

When I got to my dad’s seats, he and my stepson were sitting there like nothing had happened. I told my dad, “We need to go, this was a bad one.” He said, “You’re overreacting… the game will start any minute.” All this, in spite of the fact that both teams and their families were all down on the field holding onto each other and not at all looking like they were ready to play baseball. I tried telling my dad, “Look, the Jumbotron isn’t even working…There’s no game, Pa.”

World Series Game 3 1989

I finally got my dad to move by saying, “Let’s go down to the cop substation and see what’s up.” I was an officer in the SFPD and I knew my dad would come with me if I told him we were going to where the cops were. Sure enough, that did the trick and we found a quick route to the substation. On our way there, someone in front of us had a portable TV, which showed the Bay Bridge collapse and all the people that were trapped. After seeing that, we all knew that we had to get out of Candlestick Park in the event there were aftershocks that might bring the stadium down.

It seemed to take forever to get to our car, and then it was a very slow trek back to my parents’ house in the Richmond District. In fact, when it rains it pours, as they say, as my car started to overheat, which it never had done before. I had no idea where my husband was and worse, where my 2 year old daughter was: she was with her “surrogate” mother/babysitter, who lived on Webster Street near the Safeway in the Marina (where, as we found out later, took the worst of it).

When Reno finally got to our daughter, he couldn’t get “Mama Rosie” and Frank to leave because Frank was frantically looking all over the house for cash he had hidden all over the place (not unusual for old-fashioned Italians to do). I think my mother eventually got them out.

After dropping my father off at home, I knew I had to get to my house and make sure it was secure; this was on Museum way near the Randall Museum. Once I saw things were fine, I immediately suited up in my SFPD uniform and headed to the Hall of Justice as the call had gone out that any off-duty officer who could get into the City was to report ASAP.

I could write so much more about my duty on 6th and Stevenson…my “guarding” the Giants when they came to the Moscone Center to visit people who were homeless for the time being and getting to specifically “guard” my hero, Will Clark, who towered over me. I had to warn them that the people in the Moscone Center weren’t like the ones in the Marina, but that it was more like the inside of a prison with there being knife fights and the like.