Asian Art Museum

Laurie Wagner

I was at work at the Asian Art Museum in Golden Gate Park. As a 3rd generation Californian, my first reaction to earthquakes isn’t panic. But I realized instantly this was a big one. I remember thinking a) that the floor was actually rolling toward me like a wave and b) I could die then and there.

As abruptly as it had started, it stopped, and my instincts screamed to get out of the building. We tried to go down the back stairs; a guard came up shouting hysterically that we couldn’t go down because a light fixture had fallen. We were more worried about the heavy stone lintel hanging over the other exit, but couldn’t convince him that was a greater danger so dashed under it. On the ground floor there was only one exit we could use (security of the collection comes first) and it was under the tower that had been identified as the building’s Achilles heel, most likely to come down in a big earthquake. A guard stuck his head out looking up at it, then turned back to us and said “Run!

We did and suddenly being outside was anticlimactic, everything was still. Charles offered to drive me to the bus terminal. We drove slowly through a chastened city. Stoplights weren’t working but people were very politely taking turns. He dropped me off at the East Bay terminal where the bus driver was explaining, “The top level of the Bay Bridge collapsed.” People kept repeating over and over “Yes, but when will we go?

Realizing that with a broken bridge there wouldn’t be any ‘going’ anytime soon, I went to find Charles, stopping at a small convenience store for water in case I didn’t find him. It was dark and the cash register wasn’t working. As I left the store Charles was coming down the street and suggested we go to where we could listen to the radio. He had a friend who owned the last Blacksmith shop in San Francisco where they had a generator. When we entered the shop his friend handed me a rum and coke and introduced me to the guys. They had a Friday tradition of partying and supplies.

We spent the evening in chairs on the street listening to a radio hooked up to a truck battery, somberly watching the billowing black smoke from the Marina. Seeing the fireboats on the Bay coming to the rescue was reassuring; they weren’t dependent on shaky ground. There were very few incidents of crime that night, but the radio reported groups roaming with baseball bats. Later in the evening one of those groups walked past our quietly drinking group. One of our guys started to get nervous and vocal, Charles said quietly, “Remember the women and children.” The guy calmed down; the group passed uneventfully, looking as lost as we all felt.

Around eleven Charles and I went back to his place where his East Coast family and friends started calling to be sure he was ok. That was the first of many nights I felt anxious about being inside during aftershocks; there were a lot of them in the weeks to come.

Clift Hotel

Cathy Morrison

I was working as Purchasing Manager at the [then] Four Seasons Clift Hotel at 495 Geary. The Clift was built in 1913, allegedly the first “skyscraper” built after the quake of ’06. Naturally early skyscraper construction did not inspire much confidence in me, so when I first saw my “office” at the hotel – in the basement, next to the dumpster – I laughingly told my friends, “If there’s an earthquake, you’ll be digging me out with a pickaxe.”

The day was bright, humid and unseasonably warm. I was happily anticipating the Giants-A’s game that night. Preparing to leave work, suddenly the building shook violently. I ran to my doorway and encountered the two women who worked in Human Resources. The three of us hugged each other around a pole or column in the doorway. We could hear pipes clanging and the building moving. The shaking stopped – and then the lights went out.

We were just starting to breathe a sigh of relief when, from the deep basement of the hotel (domain of the housekeeping, laundry, and mechanical departments) emerged our Chief Engineer, who had a flashlight. He led us upstairs to the lobby, towards sunlight.

Several large plate glass windows were shattered. Many of the guests were out because the Clift was full of celebrities who’d arrived for the baseball game. Some that I can recall were sportscaster Al Michaels and actor Timothy Busfield. The hotel General Manager, Paul Pusateri, decreed that every guest present could have free champagne. The Room Service crew put flutes on round silver trays and graciously offered champagne to flustered visitors. The kitchen began to make sandwiches. Remember, it is unsafe to cook with gas after an earthquake!

The entire downtown, including the area in which the Clift is located, had no electricity. However, telephones were working. The Chief Engineer called his wife in Petaluma and she bought a huge supply of flashlights and batteries and drove them down to the hotel. When it began to get dark, as guests returned, everyone on hand was called into service to walk guests up the stairs with a flashlight. There were candles and tealights in the public areas on the main level, but no candles were allowed up in guest rooms.

We had strategy sessions to plan for food and guest services. The cooks were able to use Sterno to prepare very simple dishes. The freezer was still holding its temperature well, and we started to use as much as possible from the refrigerators.

The next morning, I planted myself at the food storeroom since I figured that neither of my employees would come to work. It was a huge surprise when the produce delivery man came around the corner! Their warehouse was in a part of The City that wasn’t impacted seriously. So the guests got lovely strawberries and fresh salad the day after the quake.

Power was out for three days, impacting cooking, lighting, elevators, and the water pump on the roof. Guests were asked neither to shower nor to flush unless necessary. Management staff was asked to stay overnight. I ended up staying at the hotel for two nights, because I lived in Berkeley and it was impossible to get home. On the third day, we were released from duties at the hotel and a friend with a car drove me home via Marin County and Highway 37.

Mr. Pusateri, our GM, was very appreciative of the way the management staff pulled together in the aftermath of the earthquake. Virtually everyone stayed at the hotel and worked 12-18 hours a day to keep the guests safe, happy, and comfortable. He treated us to a fabulous party sometime after. We were served Dom Perignon and everyone was gifted with an engraved MontBlanc Rollerball pen, as well as a framed certificate of gratitude from Isadore Sharp, the President of Four Seasons Hotels. I’ve lost touch with my Four Seasons friends, but I will never forget the October 1989 earthquake. The certificate is one of my prized possessions.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Escaping Phelan

Mark Hanzlik

I was working on the 5th floor of the Phelan Building on Market Street in San Francisco when the earthquake hit. I had heard the original Phelan Building was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and this newer flatiron had been quickly constructed immediately after the quake. So, in 1989, it seemed to be an eminently old structure to be experiencing this latest tremor.

The passage of time seemed like an eternity between the shock of the building’s heaving and shaking to my eventual arrival at home in the Outer Mission several hours later.

Shortly after the initial quake, my co-workers and I were separated as we departed the ancient building and stumbled down the closest stairway in random panic. The building had made so much crunching noise and movement during the quake, I thought for sure we wouldn’t make it out. Market Street was oddly quiet as clouds of dust and light debris filled the air. Some people were yelling, others talking earnestly about what to do next but mostly we were all looking for a path out of the downtown area where larger buildings falling seemed threatening.

Alone in my journey, I headed directly south of Market Street walking toward my destination. After what seemed like a long time, another man about my age offered me a ride on the back of his scooter. From the rear of his bike I saw more evidence of the earthquake’s destruction. My fears about what may have happened to my family and our home were the only thing on my mind. The ride carried me nearly to Noe Valley, closer to home.

I walked toward the Glen Park Bart Station, a familiar commute stop for me. It was nearly dark now and all I had to do was cross 280 on the walkway and I’d be in my neighborhood. My desire to see my family overwhelmed me as I walked down Theresa Street. There sitting outside in near darkness on the doorstep of our home was my wife and 1-year-old daughter waiting eagerly for me. After the power went out, they had moved outside to stay safe and watch for me. Despite the 6-mile journey home, the next moments were what I remember most about that day, being with my young family at home safely.

Pants Down in the Western Addition

Ann Santos

My family and I were living in an old Victorian in the Western Addition at the time. I don’t remember being scared during the quake. I do remember standing in the doorway in between the kitchen and the living room being amazed by the swaying chandelier in the living room and the plaster coming off the wall.

When the shaking stopped, we went out to the street and saw a neighbor whose pants were halfway down his legs. He later said he was in the bathroom when it happened and got so scared that he went running out of his apartment without pulling his pants all the way back up. Ha!

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I was a 16-year-old kid and thought the whole thing was so exciting. Felt no fear whatsoever. But ever since then, every time I feel a tremor, my heart wants to jump out of my chest. Talk about PTSD.

So many of us were in a state of shock and also very worried, but I had never seen or experienced that sense of community in the Bay Area, before nor after — there was so much openness, kindness and generosity. I always tell people I am so grateful to get to live in such a beautiful place, but I must admit that sometimes I forget how amazing the people are, too (especially with the current invisible class war).