Picking Up Nicole

Bob Hsiang

As per usual, I drove over to the Castro district to pick up Nicole, who was in 2nd grade that day, nothing out of the ordinary. First I went over to the post office on 18th Street to purchase some stamps or to mail out some letters. While in line, the quake hit – it was quite a jolt as I witnessed power lines on the street swaying, the building itself was made unstable and it rocked for a long time.

After the temblor stopped, I left the post office and quickly walked over to Live Oak School to see if the structure and the students were okay. Apparently the staff had already ushered out the kids to the yard outside. I finally found Nicole and took her back home while the car radio reported the earthquake from field reporters. The first thing I heard was the Cypress Freeway in Oakland had collapsed! Then another report came in about the Bay Bridge also failing. Soon enough, other reports described the damage and fires in the Marina district and other parts of the city.

While driving home I looked for damage along Church Street. I saw a chimney that had fallen, I believe. Also the stop lights were out, obviously power was out in many areas. Traffic was very slow as drivers attempted to cross intersections by hand signals. When we finally got home I remember hoping the damage to our house wasn’t too severe. I breathed a sigh of relief as it was still standing at least. Entering the house, I quickly looked around and noticed a few things had fallen but nothing serious. A loudspeaker fell off its stand, something broke in the bathroom, I think it was the toilet seat. In general the house survived pretty intact.

I was then concerned about Nancy since it was hard to reach her, no cellphones then. After some time, she called from Walter Landor’s house, and I was relieved and somewhat jealous that she was actually enjoying her stay there with food and drink. The power was still out and it was getting dark outside. The Bay Bridge World Series was halted, of course as I remember my god brother and his son, (Denis and Derek) were at the game. Reports continued to describe how badly affected the Bay Bridge and Cypress Freeway were as I felt terrible that people must have perished. Luckily only a section of the Bridge failed, not the entire structure!  We arranged for me to drive over and pick Nancy up. Again traffic was tricky, still no lights in operation. Finally got her back home and we made do until power was restored. It wasn’t until then that we saw the CNN and local tv coverage of the devastation, it was pretty surreal watching those news video reports of the Freeway collapsed, the Bridge failure and the Marina fires and sunken buildings. We had just experienced a 6.8 quake – It then dawned on us how lucky we were not be in those particular areas. I later found out a red brick building a block away from my studio on Bluxome Street also partially collapsed where a pedestrian was killed by falling bricks. My own studio was spared, however the brick building was tagged unsafe. You could put your fist through one of the cracks of the walls. Consequently I moved from that studio to another space in the Mission.

Relatives from the East Coast were relieved that we were not harmed as they were watching the media report visually arresting images of the Bridge and Cypress Freeway. The media kept on repeating the same footage over and over, just like on 9/11 when the tragedies was compounded by this non-stop coverage.

After a few days things got back to normal as I began understanding more about the unsafe ground and the soil composition that much of San Francisco is built upon, especially South of Market, the Marina, some of the Mission as well. A process called liquefaction occurs during an earthquake, making the sand-like ground underneath many of the buildings unstable and allows the foundations to sink or become unhinged. This is particularly true in the expensive Marina area. Being in a working class neighborhood like Excelsior has some benefits, I suppose.