Saturday, October 17, 2009

I Survived The Loma Prieta Earthquake

It was a Tuesday and I was working at the offices of Skadden, Arps - a large global law firm - located on the 38th floor of the Embarcadero Center.  I had just started as a temp in the Document Processing department earlier that spring and was hired full-time during the summer.

As I spoke on the phone with a friend in San Jose, I remember her saying "Oh gosh, I think we're having an earth . . ." and the phone line died.  It was but five seconds later that I too realized what was happening.

It all seemed to move in slow motion.  Since moving to San Francisco from Washington, DC in 1986, I had experienced a few small earthquakes but right away I knew this was different.  Way different.  I immediately went under my desk, remembering those "duck and cover" drills from my school days.

I really thought to myself, "This is it.  This is how I die.  The building collapses and I will never see my mother or the rest of my family again."  Just then the shaking stopped and the panic started.

* * *

My immediate concern was to make sure that people in my department were safe and unharmed - that no one had been hurt by falling bookcases or items.  One of the office manager types came in and immediately said we need to shut down the servers to preserve the data, blah, blah, blah.  I just told her, "Piss off.  There are people who might be hurt and that's what matters right now." Anyway there was no electricity although we seemed to be running on a backup generator.

I took a tour of the office with a few others and everyone seemed safe.  One attorney was very lucky in that she went right under her desk.  A large eight foot tall bookcase fell right down on top of the desk and would have killed her or at least severely injured her.

* * *

Soon after an overhead announcement came on stating what little information was known - that there had been an earthquake.  The building security asked that we stay in place and that the building would be evacuated floor by floor once it was determined that it was safe to do so.  Keep in mind that we had no idea there would be glass all over the sidewalks and other dangers.

One harrowing aspect of being on the 38th floor of one of the tallest buildings in San Francisco was not the shaking - for the building had been built on springs as required by zoning laws - but what you could see from the windows.  I could see the fires in the Marina district.  I could see that something was wrong with the Bay Bridge.  I could see smoke that was coming from the Cypress Freeway in Oakland.

Luckily one of the attorneys had an old black and white battery operated television.  We were able to tune in and learn more about the extent of damage, etc.  Yet newsrooms were not immune to rumor - one was that the Golden Gate Bridge had collapsed.  It hadn't since I could see it out the window.

But what was fact was that BART - the regional train system - and the Bay Bridge were closed and would be that way for sometime.

* * *

As we waited to evacuate down 38 flights of metal stairs (which I don't recommend ever - you will not walk for three days after that), I checked with people in the office who I knew lived in the East Bay and would have problems getting home.  Those that had someone in the city didn't know if those places still existed or were safe.

Phone lines were down and cell phones had just come into existence (yes, the heavy clunky kind that weighed 10 pounds) so there was no easy way to communicate.  I volunteered to put two women up at my apartment out near Ocean Beach.  I told them that I had no guarantees and we might end up sleeping on Ocean Beach, but they were welcome to what I had.

* * *

We finally had the green light to descend those metal stairs.  Looking back, if this event had taken place post-9/11, I probably would not have listed to the voice on the overhead speaker and would have just gotten the h*ll out of Dodge.  But the evacuation was orderly and eerily quiet.  No one spoke.  As you descended, other people came out from lower floors with the same look of panic on their faces.  The communication was all in the eyes, saying, "I hope we get out of this."

On the ground, we could see that many windows had fallen out.  In fact, we made it a point to walk as quickly away from tall buildings as glass was still raining down.  Later, I would read that several people were severely hurt over in Union Square when the large pane glass windows at the I. Magnin store fell out and hit pedestrians.

I took my co-workers with me to hop on the 38-Geary bus.  This bus line was one of the longest routes in the city and I lived on the other end of town, almost seven miles away.  Luckily we were able to get on the bus, through the back door but just barely.  As we rode, people would try to get on but everything was orderly and calm - when we said there was no room, people respected that.  We told them to walk down Market Street to catch the buses which had more room.

By the time we arrived at 40th Avenue and Geary it was already dark which meant it must have been around 7:00 pm.  The earthquake occurred at 5:04 pm and we had spent almost an hour in our offices before we were able to get out.  And when I say dark, you don't realize dark until there is no electricity and no lighting for an entire city of 850,000 people.

* * *

Well my apartment building was still standing! And I lived in an in-law apartment in the rear basement so we proceeded to get in.  Well tried to get in.  Stupidly, I had placed my mountain bike directly across from the entrance door in my unit and it fell against the door.  I was able to slowly get my hand in the door and push the bike away.

The apartment was not really damaged.  The only casualty was my wine rack table and I lost a few pieces of china that sat on it.  But not one bottle of wine was broken! Well, needless to say, my new friends and I including the neighbors in the building who were now out front would sail through my collection of cabernet sauvignons in short order.

Disasters like the Loma Prieta earthquake had one benefit - getting to know your neighbors if you didn't know them already.  We all made sure everyone had a place to stay for the night.  We all shared food especially if it was refrigerated since that would only last a few hours.  Once it was confirmed there were no gas leaks in the area, grills were fired up and food was cooked - lots of food.  It sounds weird, but it was a huge party.

* * *

A neighbor told us that the only working phone in the area was a pay phone at one of the bars up on Balboa Street.  My main concern was to somehow call my mother in New York - I had this feeling that what she was seeing on television would make the damage appear much worse than it was.  And it did - later relatives said all they saw were the fires in the Marina which gave the impression that the entire city was burning.

As we arrived at the bar, the party was on.  There was a long line for the pay phone.  So as I got in line, my friends got me a beer - which was free.  Yes, the bar owner basically gave beer and food away for free.  This is how it was city wide - there was no price gouging, no taking advantage of people.

After waiting in line an hour, I got to the phone and the weirdest thing happened - no dial tone.  It turned out you had to wait for almost a minute before the dial tone came on.  So many people were trying to call out that there weren't enough "ports" on the phone system so you just had to wait.  I tried to call my mother collect in New York but could not get through.  So I asked my one co-worker who was trying to reach her mother in Hayward, if she could do this: ask her mom to call my mom in New York and just say that I was okay.

* * *

We left the bar and headed back to my apartment.  We were all well sated with food and wine but the days events had left us exhausted.  I let the two women sleep on my opened Futon while I took the floor.  There would be a few small after shocks during the night so there wasn't much sleep.

The next morning, despite their protestations, I decided to escort my co-workers on the bus downtown so they could get home.  Ferry boats had been set up to take people to Oakland and other points.  Arrangements were made to get home from there.

* * *

I wouldn't actually be able to speak to my mother for another two days.  But I eventually did and she was very relieved to hear my voice and was glad that she knew I was okay that first night.

Even now when I am back on the Left Coast and there is a small "shaker," I get this pit in my stomach and immediately look to brace myself in a doorway or dive under a desk.  Surviving the Loma Prieta earthquake is something I will never ever forget.

Photo: Loma Prieta Earthquake Damage, via Wikimedia Commons.

© 2009, copyright Thomas MacEntee


Midge Frazel said...

I got scared just reading that!

Amy Coffin said...

Can't believe it's been 20 years.

Mel said...

It was fascinating to read your account. I was on the other side of the world, in Fremont, it seems. There was no destruction there and the quake seemed a 5.0 at most. It was hard for me to process the images I saw on TV with what I thought I experienced.

One thing I remember was how civil everyone was to each other. We were all going through it together and their didn't seem to be a reason to get ruffled.

I worked on the 9th floor in Oakland. No way I'd want to be in the 38th!