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.

SOMA to Wyoming

Lisa Heller

I was living in Noe Valley and working South of Market for a bathrobe manufacturer. I had flown back from NYC that morning and the cab driver told me to cancel my flight because there was going to be an earthquake.

I had just arrived from the airport at the office and checked in with my colleagues. I asked my friend Lois if we could leave early because I was exhausted from my trip. As I walked back into my office the earth began to shake. I had never been in an earthquake before. And before the words “earthquake” could even come out of my mouth I was under my desk. The wall of windows surrounding my office had imploded. After it was over I was running through the sewing shop telling everyone to get out of the brick building we were in. As we approached the steps some of them had shifted and it was scary walking down them.

SOMA desk 1989

Once we were out of the building I remember seeing the blacktop of the street ripple like a wave. I had never seen anything like it before in my life. We drove back to Noe Valley and all of the traffic lights were out. It was unwritten that each intersection became a four way stop. We could see the flames in the Marina and I was in tears.

I was worried about my brother that was working on the other side and would have had to cross the Bay Bridge when I heard it collapsed. I arrived home to find all of my dishes and glassware on the floor. All of my neighbors began gathering outside of my neighbor Tom’s apartment building. One of the neighbors pulled his car onto the sidewalk and had his radio on. Fortunately my landline was working (we had no cell phones in those days) and I called my family in the east to let them know I was ok. They let me know that they had also heard from my brother who lived six blocks north of me. I was relieved.

Tom and I gathered water and flashlights and walked down the street turning off all of the gas valves and checking on the elderly on our block – giving them the flashlights and water and turning on radios if they had them. The rest of us gathered in the middle of the block and stayed close together. We brought out wine and the contents of our refrigerators to have a block party and listen to the news.

As the sun set, the fire in the Marina lit up the sky. We were all pretty quiet, scared, relieved and dealing with all of the aftershocks. At about midnight the power was restored in our neighborhood and the gas company came by to say that they would be around in the morning to turn on our gas.

Within a month of the earthquake, I quit my job and moved back to Wyoming. It is a day I will never forget and one of the reasons why I will never return to California to live.

Candlestick Limo Service

Geoff Butterfield

I was in my early twenties when the Earthquake happened, making my living as a limo driver while I attended SFSU. I had a job that day to drive a Hollywood film executive and his grandson to see the World Series game at Candlestick. I dropped them at the ticket gate and told them I would pick them up at that same spot after the game.

20 minutes after I dropped them off, the earthquake hit. I was actually sitting in the back of the limo, watching the pre-game on the TV when it felt like I had been hit by another car. I jumped out of the limo, all fired up to confront whoever had just hit my car and was stunned: all the cars in the lot were bouncing up and down. It was like a low-rider convention!

The game was cancelled and people started to leave. It was still light out and I was actually surprised at how smoothly people seemed to get out of the stadium. Everyone was pretty cool about it, but— I couldn’t find my people! I later learned that the exec had panicked and grabbed the first ride he could get. However, I stayed there until 9:00 that night — I refused to leave until I knew they weren’t there.

I remember driving down 3rd Street that night and thinking it resembled a scene from “Escape from New York”. Lots of tough characters out in the street along with the occasional trash can fire, but all was well. Made it home to Noe Valley without incident and spent the rest of the evening at the Rat & Raven commiserating with the neighbors.