The Cooper House

Sam Lovett

It’s been over 26 years since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and yet I still can hardly look at a photo of the Cooper House without getting a little emotional. I was there that day, in the weeks following the earthquake, when they brought it down with a wrecking ball and bulldozers. That day, tears flowed down the cheeks of many of the Santa Cruzans who had gathered to say their goodbyes to the grand old building, which had stood on the corner of Pacific Avenue and Cooper Street since 1894.

To this day, there are those who contend that the Cooper House didn’t have to be demolished, that the earthquake hadn’t truly damaged it completely beyond repair, as had been reported, and that it actually could’ve been saved. God knows there were no shortage of people who wanted to save it. Talk to anyone who spent any time at all in downtown Santa Cruz during the Cooper House years, and they will all no doubt have a story or two about good times spent there.

My earliest memory of the place dates back to the mid 60’s when I went there with my grandmother. I was about 7. Of course, in those days it wasn’t known as the Cooper House. It was still the Santa Cruz County Courthouse.

Many people mistakenly call the Loma Prieta quake the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. The epicenter of the earthquake, however, was actually in the redwood forest of Nicene Marks State Park in Santa Cruz County, roughly 80 miles south of San Francisco, and less than 10 miles from where I lived at the time, in the Live Oak area of Santa Cruz.

I was still working in radio back then, and, along with Eddie Hudson, was doing news for radio station KSCO, which was the official emergency broadcast network station for the Monterey Bay. We practically lived at the station for the next week, and at least one of us was on the air disseminating information round the clock.

I was never more proud to be a Santa Cruz native than I was in the week or so following the earthquake. People came together to help each other in a way I had never seen. Santa Cruz felt like more of a community than ever. So many people doing everything they could to be of service to others. But, as so often happens in times following such natural disasters, that beautiful collective of community spirit soon dissipated.

The memories of the of the quake itself and the days which followed, however, especially the day we all had to say goodbye to the Cooper House, will likely never really dissipate completely for anyone who was there. I know they certainly won’t for me.

Pleasanton Court Pools

Judy McElearney Nobriga

I was inside my home in Pleasanton with my 10 year-old son, Scott. My other two children were outside on the court, playing and riding their bicycles.

As a native San Franciscan, I was familiar with earthquakes and this one felt much stronger than other ‘big’ ones. It seemed to go on for a long time (30 seconds is a long time with the movement of your home).

My son, who is generally very balanced and not threatened by much, said “Maaaaaaaaaaa oooooooommmmm”. That shook me into getting us both to a doorway where we were taught was the best place to be when inside. I knew my other children would have been safer outside.

We looked through the house and into the back yard and could see the pool making waves and spilling out into the culvert that carries excess water down the block and into the sewers. We have 8 pools in a court of 13 homes. As soon as it was safe, we went outside to check on the children. We saw water gushing down the street from other pools that had emptied and overflowed.

My neighbor had rushed outside to gather all the children and check on them. Another neighbor stood in his doorway, and to bring his personality forward, we heard him singing: “I feel the earth move under my feet!” Yes, levity to a scary situation.

I looked down the block at the house on the corner being built. It was being framed and the workers were still there, on the 3rd story, being rocked and holding on.

Grateful to have all my children safe, I called my husband. He was also safe. My Mom called me to let me know the Carquinez Bridge had fallen. Oh, no! When I got the television on, I realized it was the Bay Bridge, not the Carquinez!

The telephones went silent locally. I had only a short window of time before they did not work within the Bay Area. We later made a plan to call a friend who lives across the country to let each other know we were safe should this happen again.

Hearing other stories, I remembered a funny one. My girlfriend was pregnant with her son, Brendan. She was just leaving work and started putting her key into the car lock when she felt woozy. She said she felt faint…not realizing it was the earthquake.

Valley Ford Victorian

Daryl W. Johnson

I used to work in the Bay Area, often running the Cypress structure top and bottom, but in 1989 had been working in the North Bay Area for 2 years. I was working on a Victorian home salvage project in Valley Ford, and that day, I had removed much of the cross bracing under the house to replace dry rotted timbers and had a carpenter under the house adding bracing back as I jacked the house up to level it in sections.

When the earthquake hit, it was just as my then-GF had stopped by to bring me lunch. She and I both were rocking back and forth walking toward each other, wondering what was going on. My carpenter under the house yelled to me to stop jacking up the house and I yelled back to him, “It’s not me, it’s the whole world, get out of there!”

I looked out the window to see him darting out from the access panel and looked along Hwy 1, and the power poles were stirring and the hills were rolling. I about threw up, as did my GF.

We all got clear of the house and turned on the radios in our vehicles. Needless to say, I braced the house from the outside and left to see what had happened back in my city of Petaluma.

On The Air

Wendy Tokuda

I was at Candlestick Park, field anchoring for the World Series, when the shaking started. When the masts on the news vans began to sway, we moved to a safe area and could see the concrete parking lot roll in waves like Jell-O. Then people started leaving the stadium in droves, everyone scared and anxious about loved ones.

Sports Anchor and great guy, Wayne Walker, came out to join our news crew and we broadcast from Candlestick when we were able to get a signal. The early reports coming in were often inaccurate, for example- we heard that the bay bridge had collapsed.

As it got dark, we drove back to the station- it was kind of surreal; quiet and dark with no streetlights and no one on the streets. Then, I joined Dave McElhatton on the update desk in the newsroom. Power was out, so the engineers used generators to get us on the air. I was sitting next to the sweetest man in television and we were both able to get ahold of our families to make sure all was okay. My daughters were in grade school- the five year old was at home with our sitter, my husband at the time picked up our eight year old from Hebrew school. Joe Fonzi joined us and talked about the scene inside the stadium. Once we knew our families were safe, we could really get to work.

We were on the air into the wee hours, getting updates from fire and police, and phone calls from people all over the Bay Area telling us what was happening in their neighborhood. People were excited (not in a good way), scared, and often kind of in shock. Soon we were able to get a wider picture of the areas worst hit– the Marina, the Cypress, and Santa Cruz. It was a real lesson in the way earthquakes can work: liquefaction, unreinforced concrete = a problem, the more serious damage spread out in pockets across the bay area.

Kate Kelly and Loren Nancarrow took over, and one of our engineers who lived a couple of blocks away let me sleep on his couch. In the morning, I went back, wearing the same blouse I had stored at the station, because it was cotton and comfortable and like, who cares?

In the light of day, the damage was clearer and the story turned to the heroism of some, and the kindness of many. That was extraordinary- how people came together in the Bay Area in a way we’d never seen before.

A Parent’s Eye View

Elyse Jacobs

“I’m going home to lie down. I’ll be back soon,” I told her teachers. I felt off but, other than a slight dizziness, it was nothing I could put a finger on. Later, I’d wonder if like others of the animal kingdom, I was sensitive to the quake’s impending arrival.

I’d come to pick up my daughter from her preschool on Grove and Baker. I, too, attended as a part-time artist-in-residence, developing a program of peace education using puppets and the expressive arts.

I’d returned to and just closed the door of my apartment when the building began to sway. Stand under a doorway voiced an inner command dictated by years of living in earthquake country. After the first few head bangs against the doorframe, I realized I’d need to do more than stand.

As I stood bracing myself with outstretched arms, my thoughts were on my five year old, five blocks away. I could only pray that the seismic proofing, just completed on her school, was effective. Waiting out those 15-20 seconds before I could stumble disoriented down three flights of stairs seemed endless.

Once outside, I observed with some curiosity what can best be described as visual vibrations, after-images left hanging in space as the quake subsided. They would form, multiply and disappear as I raced down Grove Street and my beloved daughter. “Let her be safe, let her be safe.”

Arriving at her preschool, I yanked open the door. Inside, a young teacher sat on a tiny chair in the lobby. “The bay bridge collapsed,” he whispered clearly shocked, as the shaky voices of newscasters quietly streamed from the large silver boom-box on the low round table.

At that moment there was only one voice I wanted to hear. “Mommmmmmmy!!!” One lone child stood beside the child-sized drinking fountain in the hallway, my child. I forced myself to slow to a walk, giving myself a moment to appear calm and in control while she gleefully shouted, “We had an earthquake!”

On the day the earth violently shook, I felt every parent’s terror of being separated from their child during a disaster. My panic lasted only as long as it took to run those endless 5 blocks. For other parents, relief would not come so quickly.

Yarn Supply Store

Indigo Som

I was a few months out of Cal, living in Emeryville, and working at the yarn supply store Straw Into Gold, in an old 2-story warehouse at the corner of San Pablo & Ashby (Berkeley). My job was upstairs, skeining yarn for wholesale. I rode the 72 bus to work, where the bus stop was right in front of the store. Just after 5pm that day, I glanced at the clock & thought, “I’ll finish up and catch the 5:08 bus home.”

Suddenly I heard a loud series of thumps across the ceiling. Why was someone running on the roof? Then it seemed an elephant ran across—my first inkling that it might be an earthquake. I looked out the window to see if anything was moving, and then all hell broke loose. I dove under the worktable, where a huge heavy carton of yarn was stored; normally I had to struggle with my whole body to budge it, but now I shoved it right out of my way with one hand.

Having grown up in the Bay Area, I had “the position” drilled into my head, but like everyone else I knew, I had always been too cool to use it. Terrified, I crouched into a ball, tucked my head down, and folded my arms around my head. I listened to everything falling around me and prayed, “Please stop, please just make it stop”.

Eventually the world stilled into quiet. One coworker let out a “Whooooooo!” and someone else called, “Everyone alright?” We all crept out of our hiding places. The yarn skeining machine had fallen over onto my worktable. A window pane had shattered. The tall warehouse shelves had gone parallelogram, squeezing soft bags of yarn with them. Elsewhere, hundreds of cones of yarn had fallen into heaps on the floor. I was glad I worked in a place with mostly soft, light things. Seeing that everyone was okay, I booked it on out of there and caught my bus, which was miraculously still on time.

Two guys in the back were talking mortality: “Yeah, you never know when your time is gonna come…” “Anything can happen….” As we traveled south on San Pablo, a plume of black smoke billowed up from downtown Berkeley.

Back home, my downstairs neighbor ran up to me: “I think your water heater is leaking into my apartment!” I went up, shut off the water heater, put down some rags, and looked around for other damage. My vintage glass bottles had tumbled safely from a windowsill onto my bed below; they never went back up there after that. A jar of red lentils was broken on the pantry floor. Phones & electricity were out. Everything else seemed alright.

My other downstairs neighbors invited me to join them for dinner in the backyard; they were preserving calm and routine for their toddler. I was sitting with them, still too freaked out to eat, when the guy from next door, a constant jokester, came over and said, “The Bay Bridge fell down.” He had to repeat himself 4 or 5 times before we believed him.

I spent the rest of the evening trying to call family and friends. I didn’t know where my housemate was. Every time I managed to calm down, another aftershock would make me leap out of my skin all over again. Then I remembered my scary avalanche dream from the night before, which freaked me out even more. I’ve never been the same about earthquakes since.

Van Ness MUNI Station

Alvin Ja

I was stationed as Inspector at Van Ness Station for rush-hour trouble-shooting that day. I was talking to the Station Agent when the earthquake hit. Both the Station Agent and I ran upstairs (thinking self-preservation!) to the street.

After the shaking settled down, I went back down to the Van Ness platform. There was no power to trains and only emergency lighting for station. Radio communication was dead. There was a 4-car outbound train on the platform. I was hoping power would return and things could continue on their merry way. Unfortunately, I came to the realization that it ain’t going to happen after maybe 10-15 minutes of waiting.

By then, I had heard rumors of the Bay Bridge being down (my mental picture was of the Bridge having collapsed into the Bay). With no radio communication with Central Control and with my mental picture of the Bridge being down, I also came to the realization that I was de facto chief-in-charge at Van Ness. With the apparent seriousness of the earthquake, I figured that I would have to make decisions on my own.

I told the Operators (in 1989, each car in the 4-car train had an Operator) of the train on the Van Ness platform to tell passengers that it was a major quake and that the subway system was dead. They would have to go topside to find another way home.

There was another 4-car train (with a jam-packed rush hour load) stuck part way between Van Ness and Duboce junction, where the J-N trains split off from the K-L-M mainline. I tried to roll the train in reverse direction back to Van Ness Station but was unsuccessful because the brakes would not release. I told the Operators to keep the passengers calm while I ran back upstairs to get flashlights and to get the Station Agent to help evacuate the train.

The Station Agent (James Odoms) and I returned to the train and posted Operators and passengers at points along the catwalk and along the trackway at tripping hazard locations (such as switches, motors, conduit, steps, railroad ties) and successfully got people to walk from the trapped train out to the Van Ness platform with no injuries (that I know of, anyway). People, amazingly enough, were cooperative and helpful to each other: it was amazing because people who work as Operators and Inspectors at MUNI see a lot of the dark side of people. This same phenomenon of people rising to the occasion and cooperating in a crisis was repeated consistently during the days after the earthquake. Yes, the world CAN be a better place!

Aside from the evacuation described above, I’m sure that many Operators had to do evacuations of their trapped trains on their own with no assistance. At least I was lucky enough to pony up some flashlights from the Station Agent for my incident!

MUNI Inspectors and shop personnel stayed on duty until 2- 3 AM to clear the subway of trains whose brakes had locked up due to loss of electricity and to inspect the full length of the subway. I remember walking through the subway with Inspector Clyde Sanders from West Portal all the way to downtown, checking for damage to trackway and electrical overhead.

Hail Mary

Susan O’Malley

I arrived home from my 7th grade volleyball game, I was still wearing my mesh blue uniform. I think we lost that day.

I was in the kitchen alone, I think making a snack. Our kitchen had this amazing wallpaper, the kind where there was a scene of the ocean in three panels, along with a Kelly green lattice pattern.

When the earthquake started, I ran to the nearest doorway. The house was moving from side to side and so I held on and started reciting the Hail Mary. Just outside I could see our blue swimming pool, waves swooshing back and forth with such energy. That’s when I realized that this was really bad. I was scared. Holy Mary Mother of God prayer for us sinners now and at the hour of death…

When it finally stopped I went outside to cry. I mustered the courage to go back into our house to see if anything was terribly damaged. One of our goldfish was displaced on the carpet but still managed to survive after we plopped him back in his tank.

We camped out on my neighbors lawn that night. I ate junk food like Teddy Grahams and Oreos. It was actually kind of fun.

24 Hours with Walter

Suzanne T

I was studying at this cafe and the quake hit. It was the Meat Market cafe on 24th Street in Noe Valley. It was 1989, so I guess I was 25. I looked up and saw cracks spreading through the ceiling. Babies were screaming. Ducked under the table.

After the melee and shocks ended, everyone made their way out onto the sidewalk. At this time I struck up an earnest conversation with this guy about my age; his name was Walter and he had blonde dreadlocks and round John Lennon glasses. We formed an immediate bond.

We proceeded to wander down the street together where there were many displaced shop keepers with radios in from of their stores. We heard then that the bridge collapsed. We could see the fires burning in the Marina at a distance. We decided to investigate. Hopped into his car and drove through the presidio, stopping once so I could pee in the trees.

Everywhere was chaos. At the Marina we walked down streets having intense dialogue with displaced homeowners and a variety of disoriented people and walked to the edge of the water. By that time we were holding hands, naturally. When we got to the water we kissed.

We then decided that the best thing to do would be to get out of town, somewhere far away. He had a sleeping bag in his trunk. We drove south (stopping at a bar halfway to make some calls) to the beaches in Pescadero, and picked the longest, widest, most empty one, and laid out the bag. We slept under a full moon and cloudless sky. Of course we made love. It was beautiful, peaceful, and serene.

The next morning we went out to breakfast in Half Moon Bay, and I ate eggs while he read the paper. He then took me back to SF. I had been gone nearly 24 hours. He dropped me off and I never saw him again.

Town School for Boys

David Selzer

At the time of the quake I was 45 years old, teaching math at the Town School in San Francisco. I was making copies of an assignment in a small room on the second floor of my school in the Pacific Heights district of the city. I knew instantly it was a quake and took a few steps to stand in the doorway. I remember I braced myself with both arms. I looked across the hallway and made eye contact with another teacher who was standing in her doorway right across from me. Together we bounced around for 20-30 seconds. After the motion stopped I got out of the building quickly. It wasn’t damaged, but there was plenty of damage in the buildings I could see down in the Marina District. Several fires were already burning, creating plumes of smoke. A former student drove by where I was standing on Jackson and Scott Street. He stopped and told me that the Marina District was a real disaster zone.

I got worried about my girlfriend. I knew she had left school before the quake and was heading to the East Bay. I got in my car and drove to her house in Noe Valley, about 4 miles south. She wasn’t there. Electricity and phone service was out. I remember all the debris that had fallen off buildings and all the people in the street. We all exchanged information.

After a couple of hours my girlfriend came home. I was so relieved. She had a scary story: she was in downtown SF during the quake. She then tried to get on the Bay Bridge and the police actually let her on. She drove a bit and then thought better of it and turned around. She wouldn’t have been able to make it due to the section of the upper deck that had crashed onto the lower deck. Moments later, an unsuspecting driver died instantly as he flew off the upper deck due to the missing section of the upper deck. By the way, this crash was caught on tape and replayed on TV again and again. To me it is a gruesome reminder of that day and whenever it is shown, as it often is even to this day, I turn it off or look somewhere else because I know someone died right then.

The following day I drove to Santa Cruz. My mother, sister, and niece were fine. My mother was thankful that a neighbor had some over to her house after the quake and turned off her gas. It was a neighbor with whom she had been feuding (she didn’t like the way he parked his RV in his driveway). After this demonstration of concern for her welfare, she never spoke ill of him again.