Upper Deck Westbound

Kathy August

It’s the kind of day you never forget – right up there with the day Kennedy was shot or when the Challenger Space Shuttle went down.

I was on the Bay Bridge, traveling with my mother, my youngest brother and my son, who turned 6 months old that day. My other brother Kent, his wife, two young sons and their nanny (from Switzerland), had all just arrived from North Carolina. They had moved several years earlier from the Bay Area and were very excited to be making a return visit. They were staying at a small hotel/B&B just off of Fell Street. We were meeting them for dinner, and of course, to watch The Game. My brother Kraig was very concerned about not missing even a minute of the game, and to that end, brought a pocket sized transistor radio with him. The plan was to get some food that we could take back to the B&B so the little boys (age 2 & 4) could play and we could watch the game. He brought the radio to listen to every minute of the game, even when they went to get us food!

We had a little bit of a late start. We were on the upper deck of the Bay Bridge, just past the cantilever section. Very suddenly, we felt a very strong hit, like someone hit us from behind. But no one had. We screamed. Our car jumped into the next lane. In just a few seconds the day, the week, everything had changed. We immediately tried to change from the baseball game on the radio to KGO to get the latest news. First we thought a tanker had hit a pylon under the bridge, then we looked for a “mushroom cloud”. Had someone bombed us? No radio reception. Everything went blank. We kept driving – thank God my brother was driving – all of the digital signs on the bridge and all clocks were off. We couldn’t see any lights. We kept creeping along and made our way to Fell Street. An old African American man was walking up the street and my brother yelled out to him, “Was that an earthquake?” He yelled back “What the F_ _ _ do you think?!” We began to see buildings that were crumbled, frantic people crying, still no lights, and fear began to set in.

We made our way to the B&B. We found my brother and family outside. We hugged, held on, and cried. We all talked at once. What a way to return to San Francisco. Their nanny from Switzerland had never been to SF. She was a mess. When it was safe to enter the B&B we did and tried to regroup. My brothers took off on foot to try and get some dinner. They found a pizza place open. They had real brick ovens with coals! Didn’t need to rely on electricity. They waited for about 1 1/2 hours in line and finally brought back food. My son, Thomas, was still drinking baby formula. Of course, our intent was not to spend the night when we set out for the evening, so we didn’t have enough formula with us. My brothers found a corner market later that evening, the whole stores contents on the floor, and rummaged through it and found baby formula for me!

We spent the night with my brother. All of the bridges were closed and we were afraid to move. Blankets were brought to us from the manager, and he was very kind to us. He checked several times to make sure we were all doing well and to see if we needed anything.

That small transistor radio became our lifeline. All of the adults were sitting in a circle around it, like a campfire. If not for the game, my brother would never have brought the radio! It was many hours into the night before electricity was restored and we could watch this event unfold. My young nephews didn’t understand any of it. They were in awe of all of the fire trucks, sirens, and fires they could see from the windows. They sat by the windows until they fell asleep counting fire trucks. Everyone sees things so differently.

We finally crept home the next day by way of the Golden Gate Bridge to the Richmond Bridge and then to Walnut Creek. The house was a mess. Kitchen drawers all pulled out, the TV cabinet had rolled into the middle of the family room, my jewelry box had spilled all over the floor, and dishes broken. We were all safe. I watched news all day for two days. Thank God we were all safe.

Downtown Berkeley BART

Gail M.

I was working for the University of California in an office in downtown Berkeley on Milvia when the earthquake hit. However, I had already left work and was waiting for the BART train in the downtown station on Shattuck. I sighed, “The BART train is late AGAIN!”

After a bit, we heard an announcement that the Bay Area was hit by an earthquake and all trains were stopped. Those of us waiting underground had no idea there was an earthquake, proving the BART system is very safe!

shattuck BART 1989

When we hurried upstairs there was chaos on the streets. No stop lights were working and cars were maneuvering around each other as if they were props in a disaster film. I learned later that the building I had just exited had visibly swayed back and forth to the terror of those left inside, but no one was hurt.

I was able to contact my daughter in Oakland and one of her roommates drove me home to Walnut Creek through the Caldecott Tunnel, proceeding with great trepidation in case there was an aftershock.

1989 was an era with no ubiquitous cell phones so I worried most of the night about my husband, who I knew was in a carpool crossing the Bay Bridge. He has his own story to tell, but the end of mine is that he returned home safe and sound.

Power Lines

Al Wofford

I had just arrived home in Walnut Creek from work in Martinez: my younger daughter was already there.  We were in the family room talking about nothing I can remember, when suddenly it was Show Time.  Mantel decorations in the living room rattled a little, then it got worse and they began to fall, so I said to Camille, “Let’s go outside for this one”.

We were standing on the front lawn and as the shaking got worse the power lines nearby began swinging back and forth enough to occasionally touch, with an interesting light show.  (At one point, Camille stretched out on the lawn, clutching the ground for stability.) I made sure we were clear of places where the lines could land if they burned through and then it got much better: throughout the neighborhood the lines were touching, and the short circuits started blowing the high voltage fuses.  It sounded much like very large shotguns or maybe small mortar blasts, and then the lights started going out.

This being the Dark Ages (and not just because the power was out) before cell phones, we could only wonder what had happened to my wife, whose job required lots of driving around our county.  She showed up in a few more minutes with her own stories…

Camille and Goli, her friend from next door, refused to come in the house that night; they just walked the street and stayed out on the porch.


Geodesic Dome

Nicolas Gold

I was trying to take a nap upstairs in my parents’ house. It was a geodesic dome, and my twin bed was tucked into a corner where an internal wall met the downward arc of the roof. Just as I was drifting off, the bed began to rock and then shake. My first thought was that a mild earthquake was a nice way to be rocked to sleep. But the shaking continued to intensify. I quickly got up and went out onto the landing.

I walked downstairs as my parents appeared at opposite ends of the living room that spanned the dome. Hundreds of antiques shook and swayed. Outside, my mother’s car pitched up and down as waves rippled through the ground beneath it. The two young redwood trees behind the car shook violently. Of course it seemed to take several minutes before it had passed.

When it subsided and was gone, I assumed that it was no worse anywhere else and was prepared to go on with my day. My parents insisted that it must have made the news and turned on the radio. Sure enough, we soon heard that the Bay Bridge had collapsed (leading everyone to picture the complete destruction of the suspension bridge) and damage was widespread. Television news quickly showed the fallen deck on the cantilever section of the bridge, and for years people would wonder at the driver who headed toward the enormous gap at full tilt. The next drama was the damage and fire in the Marina district. The longest-running drama was the collapse of the Nimitz structure and the work to rescue those that were trapped, some for days.

The morning after the collapse, I remember having breakfast at Cafe Barbara in Lafayette and listening to someone at the next table describe having his flight diverted to Las Vegas and driving a rental car through the night to get back to the Bay Area. His daughter as working in San Francisco and was essentially trapped there overnight. That’s all I really recall. It must have been my first semester at Diablo Valley College, so I was probably too preoccupied with my Art History class with Ann Piper to pay much attention to anything else.