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.