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!


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).

28th and California

Robert Lewis

I was a tender twenty-three, recently married to a woman eight years my senior, a woman from Youngstown, OH. We’d met and married in San Diego. I’d always wanted to live in San Francisco since I’d first visited back when I was thirteen. So, on my urging, we decided to make the move, selling my 1965 Mustang for moving money. I’d come up a few days before her to meet the moving van. The apartment was out on the southeast corner of 28th and California, in the Outer Richmond. It was a studio on the street level, however when you came in through the door you would take three steps down into the room, so it was really a basement-style apartment.

My wife arrived exactly twenty-four hours before the quake. We were unpacking when it hit. Now, I’ve lived in California my entire life and have been in some big quakes, but this one was crazy big. The world started to shake, the ground beneath coming alive in this rolling wave motion. Having never been in an earthquake before, my poor wife completely freaked, running around like a chicken without a head. I grabbed her and pulled her to the front door where we stood in the doorway together while the quake seemed to go on and on.

I will never forget how eerily quiet it was when it was over. A huge vacuum of silence. We saw smoke rising from the direction of the Marina. There was no power, and so we walked over to my sister and brother-in-law’s house, over on 31st and Anza. We spent the rest of that night eating a great salad my sister threw together and getting drunk by candle light, her husband wearing these funny glasses that had pen lights over each ear.

Newton Street

Shoshi R

I was 4 and in the back seat of my mom’s silver 82 Corolla with the window rolled down. It was parked in front of our house on Newton St, near Mission and Geneva. My mom was standing in the street next to me talking with our 94-year-old neighbor Dolores.

Suddenly the car started lurching back and forth, and a brick chimney crumbled off a roof across the street down the block. My mom grabbed me out the window and put her arm around Dolores to steady her. We looked at our house and could see our golden retriever ‘Boogie’ climb under a desk next to a floor length window on the second floor. What a smartie pants! Suddenly everything stopped, and everything was quiet except for a chorus of car alarms.

We went into our house and all of my porcelain dolls had fallen and broken their faces. All of the framed pictures decorating the walls had fallen and cracked.

I remember sitting by the radio with my mom listening to reports of the destruction.My father, who owned a pet-supply store in the Sunset, had been at work and spent long hours cleaning up broken bags of dog food and bird seed.

Walking Home from SF State

Jeffrey Linn

When the quake hit, I was studying in the library at SFSU. I felt the first slight shaking, and wondered if it was an earthquake, but as it got stronger, I knew that it was. The lesson of many years of California elementary school earthquake drills kicked in, and I dove under the heavy library table. Seconds later, shelves were jumping up and down and books were falling down all around me. I was horrified as the thought came to mind—“I’m in the old part of the library!” Fortunately, the structure held, and when the shaking stopped, I looked out from under the table. The piles of fallen books had released decades of accumulated dust, and a cloud was slowly rising to the ceiling. I’d never realized that old books were so grimy.

Afterwards, I had to make my way back home to the Mission. Because of the power outages, all electrified transportation was out of service—no Muni, no trolleys. So I started walking home. By the time I made it to the Inner Sunset, it was getting dark, and the bars were starting to fill up. I peeked through the window of the Little Shamrock on Lincoln & 9th, and saw brief images of the fire in the Marina and the collapsed deck of the Bay Bridge. Then the power went out, and I kept walking.

By the time I made it to the Castro, it was dark and the bars were packed. Everyone knew it was a huge event, and the folks of the Castro are never ones to pass up an opportunity to throw a party. There was a sense of both revelry and generosity–the Walgreens had closed, but the manager and employees were standing in front of the store, handing out free batteries and flashlights to whoever wanted them. It was festive and joyous. The rest of my walk was quiet and uneventful. When I got back to my apartment on Oakwood Street, it was dark—the power was still out, but was restored within an hour.

Facing the Embarcadero

Lydia Steinauer

Stretched out on the living room rug, I was designing my high school senior yearbook page when the television began to shake.

“What’s wrong with the game?” my dad asked, horrified that anything would dare interrupt a world series playoff game between the Oakland A’s and his beloved Giants.

We lived on the 8th floor of an apartment building facing the Embarcadero Center and Ferry Building. We also lived on landfill. Moments after the shaking started, the TV screen went black. We all ran into the hallway and crouched down as the walls bowed and shivered around us. But what I remember most was the sound; it was as though the earth was growling. Why had no one ever told me that earthquakes could be loud?

When we assessed the damage, I was devastated to see that my chocolate Teddy Grahams had gotten soggy from the fish tank’s sloshing water. But I was in disaster mode, and I loved chocolate, so I ate them anyway.

soggy teddy grahams 1989

For months afterwards, the flagpole atop the Ferry Building leaned just a little to the right. Even the Embarcadero Freeway, usually flowing with the constant hum of cars below my window, was silent- an eery reminder that our city had in a matter of seconds been changed forever.

Panhandle Garage

Chris Brown

I was working in the garage on the bottom floor of our dilapidated three-story apartment building on Oak St. between Schrader and Cole, at the end of the Panhandle. This is the acceleration spot for traffic coming out of Golden Gate Park heading east towards downtown, a continuous glide through the timed traffic lights. The wave of cars created its own breeze, usually circulating the cool foggy air, but on this day it was still and hot. So I had the door open while I worked inside my piano repair and electronic music shop at the back of dingy three cars-in-a-row capacity garage.

First car in was my ‘65 manual transmission Ford Econoline, the working piano-tuner’s vehicle that I used to navigate my SF neighborhood customers. Second car was the landlord’s brand-new Mercedes sedan draped in a car-cover, that was never moved and never driven. It represented his attitude towards all his property, especially the apartment building — leave everything exactly as you acquired it, never using it, so you’ll never need to maintain, much less repair it. Behind the Mercedes, my shop space began with a workbench made from a salvaged door covered with 1/8″ plywood, my drill-press and table-saw, and disassembled pianos in repair. Behind that, a makeshift drummer’s room, made from 2×4’s and sheetrock covered with green and yellowish carpet fragments.

Panhandle Garage 1989

Its ceiling was about 7 feet, and the room itself about 10×18, packed with an upright piano, a small table for electronics construction and composing, small loudspeakers hanging from the walls, and an collection of homemade electroacoustic instruments made from stainless steel, plastics, recycled piano parts, and wood. A jury-rigged lampcord power system draped over the walls to a set of 3 bare incandescent bulbs and a single fluorescent light fixture. Behind the room was a narrow, lightless storage space, separated by a wall from the last part of the garage which contained the three water heaters for the building, and three more old water heaters that had been decommissioned, but never disposed of.

This was my lair between 1981 and 1998, where I made my living and made my art.

I was sitting at the electronics table soldering, enjoying the afternoon, when the quake hit. Suddenly the whole garage-tunnel was moving, even the walls were wobbling radically from side to side, like 15 degrees or so, and my general impression was that everything solid was becoming liquid. The lights went out and soot started raining down from the garage ceiling as I staggered first towards the doorway of the drummer’s room, then thought to myself quickly that if the apartment building collapsed, I would be dead meat in this dusty-old tomb. My little studio would be crushed like a matchbox.

My next flash of brilliance was to run towards the Mercedes to lie underneath it, because surely its German steel and Michellin tires would protect me better. As I lurched in that direction, the first quake subsided, and so I never got down on the dingy floor but kept going all the way out of the garage. There I realized that I was probably still in danger from things that might fall off the roof, as I stood in the very spot where 8 years before a roofer had fallen to his death on the sidewalk.

I ran quickly across Oak St. into the Panhandle where only the tough old eucalyptus trees might be dangerous. Dazed Haight-Ashbury residents started to join up on the grassy strip. The ground wasn’t moving, but alarms were starting to go off. A fire would soon begin between Shrader and Stanyan St., and I thought I’d hazard a trip up to my 2nd floor apartment to check for damage and turn off the gas.

I was up in the apartment when the first strong aftershock hit, but like riding a wave, I felt way safer with only one floor of the building above me. After it stopped I picked up the phone and was surprised to get a dial tone. I phoned my mother in Chicago and quickly told her I was ok.

After that, the phones went dead for a few days.

SOMA to Wyoming

Lisa Heller

I was living in Noe Valley and working South of Market for a bathrobe manufacturer. I had flown back from NYC that morning and the cab driver told me to cancel my flight because there was going to be an earthquake.

I had just arrived from the airport at the office and checked in with my colleagues. I asked my friend Lois if we could leave early because I was exhausted from my trip. As I walked back into my office the earth began to shake. I had never been in an earthquake before. And before the words “earthquake” could even come out of my mouth I was under my desk. The wall of windows surrounding my office had imploded. After it was over I was running through the sewing shop telling everyone to get out of the brick building we were in. As we approached the steps some of them had shifted and it was scary walking down them.

SOMA desk 1989

Once we were out of the building I remember seeing the blacktop of the street ripple like a wave. I had never seen anything like it before in my life. We drove back to Noe Valley and all of the traffic lights were out. It was unwritten that each intersection became a four way stop. We could see the flames in the Marina and I was in tears.

I was worried about my brother that was working on the other side and would have had to cross the Bay Bridge when I heard it collapsed. I arrived home to find all of my dishes and glassware on the floor. All of my neighbors began gathering outside of my neighbor Tom’s apartment building. One of the neighbors pulled his car onto the sidewalk and had his radio on. Fortunately my landline was working (we had no cell phones in those days) and I called my family in the east to let them know I was ok. They let me know that they had also heard from my brother who lived six blocks north of me. I was relieved.

Tom and I gathered water and flashlights and walked down the street turning off all of the gas valves and checking on the elderly on our block – giving them the flashlights and water and turning on radios if they had them. The rest of us gathered in the middle of the block and stayed close together. We brought out wine and the contents of our refrigerators to have a block party and listen to the news.

As the sun set, the fire in the Marina lit up the sky. We were all pretty quiet, scared, relieved and dealing with all of the aftershocks. At about midnight the power was restored in our neighborhood and the gas company came by to say that they would be around in the morning to turn on our gas.

Within a month of the earthquake, I quit my job and moved back to Wyoming. It is a day I will never forget and one of the reasons why I will never return to California to live.

Banana Republic

Sun Lee

I had moved here from Hawaii, fresh out of high school just a couple months prior, and was working at the original Banana Republic store on Grant Avenue (this was when they were still true to their roots and their clothing catered to the safari adventurer/international photojournalist/exotic traveler demographic). Even the interior of the store had a jungle theme decor and there was a giraffe whose feet rested on the subterranean level (the women’s dept), but was tall enough that you could see his neck and head emerge through the stairwell opening on the main street level (men’s dept).

My shift was due to start in a few minutes. I dashed downstairs to the employees-only bathroom located near the stockroom, passing the breakroom on my way. I was washing my hands when the ground started to shake and I reached out and held onto the walls and heard something metal fall to the concrete floor just outside the bathroom. It did not immediately occur to me that it was an earthquake; I had never experienced an earthquake in Hawaii. I thought perhaps a heavy truck had passed through overhead on Grant Avenue was the cause of the shaking.

When the shaking stopped, I headed out to the sales floor and saw that the breakroom, which had been full when I first passed it, was now empty. I walked out on to the women’s dept. and noticed that it was completely deserted. I looked around in bewilderment and a gal who did our window displays came running down the stairs and told me that “Sun, that was an earthquake and you need to get your ass upstairs and out on to the street in case this building collapses!”

My older sister, Yvonne, was visiting from Hawaii (and was staying with me), found me on Grant Ave. staring up at the nearby buildings. Turns out she walking up the stairs exiting the Montgomery BART station when the earthquake struck and she was pretty freaked out. She wanted to get on to the first flight back to HI. We met up with my then-roommate, Karen, who worked at the GAP around the corner from Banana Republic. The three of us walked back to our studio apartment at 8th & Market. Strangely enough, our apartment showed no signs of any earthquake damage — not a thing anything knocked over… just nothing. However, a neighbor of ours down the hallway reported that their apartment had a crack in the wall that had not been there before and they had stuff that was knocked over.

We lost power, but we had a battery-powered radio and that’s how we heard the news that there were fires in the Marina, that a lot of apartment buildings in the Marina had collapsed. We heard about the partial collapse of the Bay Bridge. We heard sirens all through the night. Some friends stopped by with flashlights and we piled into their car looking for some place with electricity, so we could eat. It was eerie to see large swaths of the city during a blackout. I remember the rest of that night as being of in a kind of a daze.

My family in Hawaii was frantic to try to get a hold of us to see if Yvonne and I were OK; they said later that news reports made it sound like that the city of San Francisco had either sunk into the Bay or had gone up in flames. I do remember feeling fortunate that my sister, roommate, and I were unharmed, and I also clearly remember begging my sister to wait out the rest of her visit as planned, instead of cutting her stay short and flying back to Hawaii.

54 Felton

Gabe Wachob

On the evening of Oct 17, 1989, I was a 16 year old senior at Lick-Wilmerding High School. When the earthquake hit, I was on the 54 Felton on my way home after a late day at school (why I was going home at 5, I don’t remember). It was a normal day, except abnormally hot as we all know, except about 2 minutes after we crossed Mission (on Persia), while at a stop, someone started trying to tip the old bus over. Or so we thought. It was a strange experience – those old diesel buses were not exactly lightweight… When I looked up (during the shaking) I saw “standing waves” in the electricity lines above. I knew it was an earthquake.

The bus continued on the route – I don’t think we knew the magnitude of what had happened. It was clear, as we continued on, that it was a serious event, however. Driving through a part of town with 2 story stucco-d houses with garages on the first floor, we could see big cracks in the stucco around almost every garage.

54 Felton 1989

It was *really* hot when I got home, and my parents and my grandfather (visiting from Bakersfield) were at Candlestick for game 1 of the World Series – it was a strange day, earthquake or not.

No major damage (though I distinctly remember a shelf speaker had fallen neatly in a garbage can – of all the random memories I have). So here I was, an only child, experiencing the earthquake (and more importantly, the big aftershocks by myself) while my family was stuck at Candlestick. This was before cell phones – so I had no idea what was going on. You couldn’t even make an outbound call without waiting 30 seconds for a dial-tone. The power was out, people came out on the street (which, for my neighborhood, was extremely rare). But strangely I wasn’t scared. I was in a 6 hour adrenaline rush that night..

We were lucky – by the next morning, the power was on, no interruption in water or gas service, etc. I spent the next couple of days hanging out with friends surveying the damage (school had been cancelled for a few days). I remember going to the Marina and trying to get on the national news reports by walking back and forth behind the live reporters, because thats what teenagers would do, of course.

Everything was exciting – it was probably a great time in my life to experience this – as a teenager, with relatively few concerns, but old enough to realize the magnitude of what happened, and the appreciate that I had lived through something historic, and survived. To this day, I still feel an adrenaline rush every time a truck rolls by and shakes the street… and yet I still slack on the earthquake prep kit. DOH!

Postscript: As a side note, at the time of the quake, I was just getting my driver’s license, and had not gotten a chance to drive across the bay bridge. When the bay bridge was repaired and re-opened about a month after the quake, I ended up driving across the bay bridge for my very first time about 20 minutes after re-opening. I now always feel a special connection with that bridge… but glad they finally replaced it 😉