Helpless in Seattle

Wei Ming Dariotis

I was in the wrong city when it happened, sitting in a classroom in Seattle at the University of Washington, listening to a lecture on 18th century British literature. At some point, the professor casually mentioned that there was an earthquake in San Francisco, and I started to panic, but his manner had been so casual that I put it out of my mind, thinking it must have been a small one—the kind that so often unnerve people living far away, but leave native San Franciscans like me unfazed.

It wasn’t until later, when I got back to my dorm and started watching the news, that I realized the extent and intensity of it. When I started to understand the extent of this tragedy, I felt like someone who has failed to be present at a major life-changing event—like failing to be with one’s dying parent, or at the birth of one’s child. How could I call myself a San Franciscan if I wasn’t there at the hour of her deepest need?

As I saw the news reports of the Bay Bridge collapse and the fires in the Marina District, I imagined what it would be like to be there, helping people feel safe, helping to put out fires or even rescue someone.

Looking back on it, I wonder why I pictured myself as a savior rather than fearing being a victim. I was 19 years old and I didn’t know anything about fire safety or CPR. Then, as now, I didn’t really have a lot of upper body strength, so I don’t know how I thought I could have actually saved anyone from a collapsed building or bridge.

I just know that the feeling that I had not been where I should have been haunted me for years. I felt like I had betrayed my first love; I had missed her major milestone. Going forward, what deep change could I go through with San Francisco to cement our relationship? How could we continue to grow older together in light of my absence at this critical juncture?