Where Were You When The Loma Prieta Quake Struck?

A look back at a strange day, and an invitation to share your experience.

My editor at the Martinez News Gazette, Bob Osmond, was a huge baseball fan, and I don't know that I had ever seen him quite so happy as that day, October 17, 1989, when he left the office for once right before 5 p.m. to go home and watch the first game of the Bay Bridge World Series. The Oakand A's playing the San Francisco Giants for the title of World Champions. It was historic, to say the least.

I walked him to the corner of Main Street and Estudillo Street, chatting about the stories for tomorrow's paper and assuring him that I would take care of putting the paper to bed. 

As we were chatting, I noticed the glass storefronts across the street were waving, as though they were suddenly made of jello.

"That's strange," I thought to myself. I was about to say something about that to Bob, when the reason for it became all too obvious: both of us struggled to stay on our feet as the ground shook suddenly and violently. After a few seconds, it was over. 

We looked at each other, and said nothing. It was obvious, being in the news business, what we were going to be doing over the next few days. We both headed home to make sure our families were safe, then back to the office, where we pretty much lived for the next week or so. 

Those first hours were strange. Power went out, and there were no cell phones. The land lines were jammed, and when power finally came back on, the only news we could find was on radio and TV -- the Internet as we know it now didn't exist yet. But the initial reports were spotty and terrifying; the Golden Gate Bridge was down, the Bay Bridge was down. San Francisco was on fire. Thousands were killed beneath a collapsed freeway. Most of these first stories turned out to be wrong, thank goodness, but it took a while to sort out fact from fiction. 

I wandered around Martinez, noting that brick facades had fallen off some of the buildings, but for the most part, things seemed ok. I don't recall any major damage to Martinez, except for the pier, which collapsed. People were scared, or amused, but there was no obvious panic in the streets. 

But here's what I do remember: as a reporter, I kept my cool and tried to find all the facts I could, so I could report this major historical event in a way that would be the most useful to people. I remember thinking to myself how strange it was that I was so seemingly unaffected by an event that had everyone around me pretty shook up. 

A couple of weeks later, when the event was over and most everyone else was starting to move on, I had a total freak out. I stayed home from work and shivered for a couple of hours, tears streaming down my face. All I could see was the wreckage of the Marina district, and the collapsed freeway, and the fear on all those faces the first few days. I wonder if other reporters have the same delayed reaction to significant events they cover. 

So that's my story about October 17, 1989. 

What's yours? Share it with us today. 

Rita Wilson October 17, 2011 at 06:54 PM
I was leaving my school library on Travis AFB at 5:01, since I wanted to call my husband after 5 (cheaper) to let him know I had worked late again. When getting into my car, I didn't feel the earthquake. Turning on the car radio, I was surprised I couldn't get my KGO station. First I thought my antennae had been broken, but then I got other stations. I think I went 80 mph to get home (shhhhhh...) and didn't see anyone on the road until I passed the Carquinez Bridge enroute to Berkeley. My husand had tried to call our daughter in Fort Lauderdale who was watching the World Series game alone in her house. You all know how the fires in SF were portrayed to the rest of the country (and probably world). My husband had tried to reach her, unsuccessfully, but I just kept on dialing and dialing when I reached home, and finally reached her, at which point she burst out crying. My son in Oakland had been working with the Red Cross emergency team, and he surely had a lot to do. Yes, I'm prepared in my house for a similar situation.
Donna Allen October 18, 2011 at 06:00 AM
I was in Italy at a World Bocce Championship. The Italian media REALLY covered it! Everyone was concerned for us and our families. Because of the time difference we were able to call home and check on everyone before the lines got jammed. It was amazing how concerned the rest of the world was for the bay area.
Carole Dwinell October 18, 2011 at 04:09 PM
I was working with a horse on a longe line with vaulters (gymnastics on horseback) when I heard this sound like I had never heard before. I thought the horse was pulling me (which he never did) as I could hardly stand up. All the other horses in their pasture started going crazy, then stopped staring toward the southwest as the one I was longeing was galloping like crazy. I yelled at the vaulter who was up to just sit down and HANG ON! That's when I actually saw the earth RIPPLE! We were stunned. Everyone was safe but there were eight horses that were sure spooked.
Marlene Vasilieff October 18, 2011 at 04:42 PM
I was at home in Santa Rosa. That morning a Peterbuilt truck rear-ended me. I have never been in more pain in my life. At the time of the earthquake, I was on the phone with the owner of the truck company who was trying to convince me to work with him and not go through my insurance company. I felt the earthquake and saw a plant falling off my book shelf so I said, "I think we are having an earthquake. I have to go." The floor was rolling like I was standing on waves. It seemed to last forever. I stayed in bed in excruiating pain for days just watching the earthquake coverage, there was nothing else on. I thought it was so great how everyone helped each other. The Bay Area is a really special place. I had never been in a car accident and didn't know what to do. It was one of the worst times of my life.
Nancy Rowe October 18, 2011 at 06:28 PM
Shelley Lipman & I were working our huge, annual Halloween Costume sale at Snapdragon, 930 Court St. Tons of costumes hanging from all the trees. The old victorian shook, the outside fireplace bricks came down, we ran outside & watched Court St. ribboning down from the water toward us in waves. I mean, the street was rising & falling in waves! At home on Ulfinian, my son grabbed my special glass art piece to save it, & got under the table. What an event... we were safe... but others weren't so lucky.
Patrick J. McNamara October 18, 2011 at 06:32 PM
After a scrumptious dinner of soft-shell crab and fresh oysters in a little harbor town in Maryland (whose name escapes me), my wife and I strolled back to our little B+B to settle in and watch the world series game. It must have been carried on CBS that year, because I remember turning the sound off on the TV, turning some music on, and tuning to the correct channel for the pre-game and seeing nothing but the face of Dan Rather babbling on in his patented "I'm very very concerned" face. After a few minutes, I grew weary of Dan, and started channel surfing, finding nothing but talking head after talking head. Finally, I turned up the volume and learned of the earthquake.
Anne Mobley October 19, 2011 at 12:55 AM
I was getting a manicure. I felt it and thought "earthquake, no big deal." But it continued for what I thought was a long time and I started to panic. The manicurist's man called her to tell her the bridge collapsed. I worked for a man who said he was a junior engineer with Caltrans and he knew exactly why the Cypress Structure failed. His comment was picked up by AP and it caused many phone calls into City Hall to talk to him. What they did not know is that the man was a nut case with an over inflated ego to think that a lowly junior engineer would know more than those with many years of experience.
Linda Meza October 19, 2011 at 04:28 AM
400 miles south, working swings at Northrop B-2 Div. We'd gone through the Whittier Narrows quake and I was still sensitive to the damage of it all. I was on the phone with a colleague in another part of the plant when I felt the building sway. I uttered an expletive and dove under the nearest desk. Since this was a black project we got bits and pieces of information from our mobile plant protection officers. It wasn't until I got home at 11 that I got to see the damage to San Francisco. I remember really pulling for the man who was trapped in his car on the bridge and crying when we learned he'd died.
Chris Kapsalis October 19, 2011 at 01:53 PM
I was in Baseball hell being down 2-0 to the A's. Then just a game was so trivial. While people were trapped under the collapsed freeway in Oakland. Our house shook, and we all came through ok. Went into the hallway and held on, as it didn't get that bad. Some cracking in the walls and concrete. It was scary as the TV was out for a bit and we didn't know how bad it was. SF is on fire! One of my biggest fears was that Candlestick park fell down. It didn't. It was not even "the Big One" as they say, a painful reminder and also at the cost of 63 lives that we were not prepared. I think that quake and their sacrifice will save lives in the future.


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