I was at work at the Asian Art Museum in Golden Gate Park. As a 3rd generation Californian, my first reaction to earthquakes isn’t panic. But I realized instantly this was a big one. I remember thinking a) that the floor was actually rolling toward me like a wave and b) I could die then and there.
As abruptly as it had started, it stopped, and my instincts screamed to get out of the building. We tried to go down the back stairs; a guard came up shouting hysterically that we couldn’t go down because a light fixture had fallen. We were more worried about the heavy stone lintel hanging over the other exit, but couldn’t convince him that was a greater danger so dashed under it. On the ground floor there was only one exit we could use (security of the collection comes first) and it was under the tower that had been identified as the building’s Achilles heel, most likely to come down in a big earthquake. A guard stuck his head out looking up at it, then turned back to us and said “Run!”
We did and suddenly being outside was anticlimactic, everything was still. Charles offered to drive me to the bus terminal. We drove slowly through a chastened city. Stoplights weren’t working but people were very politely taking turns. He dropped me off at the East Bay terminal where the bus driver was explaining, “The top level of the Bay Bridge collapsed.” People kept repeating over and over “Yes, but when will we go?”
Realizing that with a broken bridge there wouldn’t be any ‘going’ anytime soon, I went to find Charles, stopping at a small convenience store for water in case I didn’t find him. It was dark and the cash register wasn’t working. As I left the store Charles was coming down the street and suggested we go to where we could listen to the radio. He had a friend who owned the last Blacksmith shop in San Francisco where they had a generator. When we entered the shop his friend handed me a rum and coke and introduced me to the guys. They had a Friday tradition of partying and supplies.
We spent the evening in chairs on the street listening to a radio hooked up to a truck battery, somberly watching the billowing black smoke from the Marina. Seeing the fireboats on the Bay coming to the rescue was reassuring; they weren’t dependent on shaky ground. There were very few incidents of crime that night, but the radio reported groups roaming with baseball bats. Later in the evening one of those groups walked past our quietly drinking group. One of our guys started to get nervous and vocal, Charles said quietly, “Remember the women and children.” The guy calmed down; the group passed uneventfully, looking as lost as we all felt.
Around eleven Charles and I went back to his place where his East Coast family and friends started calling to be sure he was ok. That was the first of many nights I felt anxious about being inside during aftershocks; there were a lot of them in the weeks to come.