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.