Clift Hotel

Cathy Morrison

I was working as Purchasing Manager at the [then] Four Seasons Clift Hotel at 495 Geary. The Clift was built in 1913, allegedly the first “skyscraper” built after the quake of ’06. Naturally early skyscraper construction did not inspire much confidence in me, so when I first saw my “office” at the hotel – in the basement, next to the dumpster – I laughingly told my friends, “If there’s an earthquake, you’ll be digging me out with a pickaxe.”

The day was bright, humid and unseasonably warm. I was happily anticipating the Giants-A’s game that night. Preparing to leave work, suddenly the building shook violently. I ran to my doorway and encountered the two women who worked in Human Resources. The three of us hugged each other around a pole or column in the doorway. We could hear pipes clanging and the building moving. The shaking stopped – and then the lights went out.

We were just starting to breathe a sigh of relief when, from the deep basement of the hotel (domain of the housekeeping, laundry, and mechanical departments) emerged our Chief Engineer, who had a flashlight. He led us upstairs to the lobby, towards sunlight.

Several large plate glass windows were shattered. Many of the guests were out because the Clift was full of celebrities who’d arrived for the baseball game. Some that I can recall were sportscaster Al Michaels and actor Timothy Busfield. The hotel General Manager, Paul Pusateri, decreed that every guest present could have free champagne. The Room Service crew put flutes on round silver trays and graciously offered champagne to flustered visitors. The kitchen began to make sandwiches. Remember, it is unsafe to cook with gas after an earthquake!

The entire downtown, including the area in which the Clift is located, had no electricity. However, telephones were working. The Chief Engineer called his wife in Petaluma and she bought a huge supply of flashlights and batteries and drove them down to the hotel. When it began to get dark, as guests returned, everyone on hand was called into service to walk guests up the stairs with a flashlight. There were candles and tealights in the public areas on the main level, but no candles were allowed up in guest rooms.

We had strategy sessions to plan for food and guest services. The cooks were able to use Sterno to prepare very simple dishes. The freezer was still holding its temperature well, and we started to use as much as possible from the refrigerators.

The next morning, I planted myself at the food storeroom since I figured that neither of my employees would come to work. It was a huge surprise when the produce delivery man came around the corner! Their warehouse was in a part of The City that wasn’t impacted seriously. So the guests got lovely strawberries and fresh salad the day after the quake.

Power was out for three days, impacting cooking, lighting, elevators, and the water pump on the roof. Guests were asked neither to shower nor to flush unless necessary. Management staff was asked to stay overnight. I ended up staying at the hotel for two nights, because I lived in Berkeley and it was impossible to get home. On the third day, we were released from duties at the hotel and a friend with a car drove me home via Marin County and Highway 37.

Mr. Pusateri, our GM, was very appreciative of the way the management staff pulled together in the aftermath of the earthquake. Virtually everyone stayed at the hotel and worked 12-18 hours a day to keep the guests safe, happy, and comfortable. He treated us to a fabulous party sometime after. We were served Dom Perignon and everyone was gifted with an engraved MontBlanc Rollerball pen, as well as a framed certificate of gratitude from Isadore Sharp, the President of Four Seasons Hotels. I’ve lost touch with my Four Seasons friends, but I will never forget the October 1989 earthquake. The certificate is one of my prized possessions.

Banana Republic

Sun Lee

I had moved here from Hawaii, fresh out of high school just a couple months prior, and was working at the original Banana Republic store on Grant Avenue (this was when they were still true to their roots and their clothing catered to the safari adventurer/international photojournalist/exotic traveler demographic). Even the interior of the store had a jungle theme decor and there was a giraffe whose feet rested on the subterranean level (the women’s dept), but was tall enough that you could see his neck and head emerge through the stairwell opening on the main street level (men’s dept).

My shift was due to start in a few minutes. I dashed downstairs to the employees-only bathroom located near the stockroom, passing the breakroom on my way. I was washing my hands when the ground started to shake and I reached out and held onto the walls and heard something metal fall to the concrete floor just outside the bathroom. It did not immediately occur to me that it was an earthquake; I had never experienced an earthquake in Hawaii. I thought perhaps a heavy truck had passed through overhead on Grant Avenue was the cause of the shaking.

When the shaking stopped, I headed out to the sales floor and saw that the breakroom, which had been full when I first passed it, was now empty. I walked out on to the women’s dept. and noticed that it was completely deserted. I looked around in bewilderment and a gal who did our window displays came running down the stairs and told me that “Sun, that was an earthquake and you need to get your ass upstairs and out on to the street in case this building collapses!”

My older sister, Yvonne, was visiting from Hawaii (and was staying with me), found me on Grant Ave. staring up at the nearby buildings. Turns out she walking up the stairs exiting the Montgomery BART station when the earthquake struck and she was pretty freaked out. She wanted to get on to the first flight back to HI. We met up with my then-roommate, Karen, who worked at the GAP around the corner from Banana Republic. The three of us walked back to our studio apartment at 8th & Market. Strangely enough, our apartment showed no signs of any earthquake damage — not a thing anything knocked over… just nothing. However, a neighbor of ours down the hallway reported that their apartment had a crack in the wall that had not been there before and they had stuff that was knocked over.

We lost power, but we had a battery-powered radio and that’s how we heard the news that there were fires in the Marina, that a lot of apartment buildings in the Marina had collapsed. We heard about the partial collapse of the Bay Bridge. We heard sirens all through the night. Some friends stopped by with flashlights and we piled into their car looking for some place with electricity, so we could eat. It was eerie to see large swaths of the city during a blackout. I remember the rest of that night as being of in a kind of a daze.

My family in Hawaii was frantic to try to get a hold of us to see if Yvonne and I were OK; they said later that news reports made it sound like that the city of San Francisco had either sunk into the Bay or had gone up in flames. I do remember feeling fortunate that my sister, roommate, and I were unharmed, and I also clearly remember begging my sister to wait out the rest of her visit as planned, instead of cutting her stay short and flying back to Hawaii.

Les Misérables

Allen Sawyer

I was meeting my friend Pam on her dinner break; she was stage-managing Les Miz at the Curran Theatre. The show hadn’t opened yet, and they were rehearsing the barricade scene, which meant there was a large pile of “rubble” on the stage.

The adult cast and crew were released but Pam had to stay at the theatre until the two child actors could be picked up by their parents. While we waited, Pam and I went around the stage with flashlights calling out to each other–“This brick’s plastic- it’s part of the set, this brick’s real- it’s earthquake damage…