Saturday, October 17, 2009

20 Years Ago, The Earth Moved

Today is the 20th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake in northern California. It's probably best remembered as the "World Series earthquake", since it struck just before game time of Game 3 of the 1989 World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A's.

I was at that ball game at Candlestick Park. My buddy Ken Fishkin and I had gotten tickets somehow, and we were sitting high up in the outfield stands. When the quake started, we thought it was just the stands shaking from the crowd stamping their feet to cheer on the Giants. As the shaking got stronger, I started thinking about those soccer stadium collapses I had heard about in Europe. Somewhere along the way I gradually realized that this wasn't just a stadium being rocked by the crowd, it was an earthquake, and a big one. Looking up, I could see pieces of the concrete lip of the stadium jiggling around over my head. When the shaking stopped, the crowd cheered loudly. They had had a good ride, and it was clear that - in the stadium at least - no one had been hurt. Someone held up a sign that read "That was nothing; wait until the Giants come to bat!".

I had been through several small earthquakes before, having lived in California for a couple of years in grad school, and then again since starting my job at PDI in early 1989. They were generally in the 4-5 range on the Richter scale, strong enough to feel and make things shake a bit, but not really very frightening. The Loma Prieta quake was a big one, measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale, and it was scary.

My friend Ken had brought a portable TV along to the game, and we turned it on to find out what was going on. All the channels were off the air immediately after the quake, but the signals were restored soon after, and we began to see images of the fires in the Marina district, the broken upper deck of the Bay Bridge roadway, and the collapsed upper section of the Cypress Street Viaduct, where 42 people were crushed in their cars. I had driven under that section of freeway 2 days earlier during a visit to Berkeley. So we quickly realized that while all was well in the stadium, the earthquake had taken a toll elsewhere in the Bay Area.

While the stadium had moved a lot during the quake, it was behaving as it had been designed, articulating to release the stresses, and cracking at the the stairways, but staying pretty much intact. On our way out, I grabbed a small fragment of concrete that had broken off a stairway, to keep as a souvenir.

After we realized the game wasn't going to proceed, we started trying to find our way home. What was normally a half-hour drive down the peninsula to Palo Alto became a 4 hour journey, as traffic was disrupted by crowds of people trying to get home, and some overpasses were blocked off until they could be inspected. Phone lines were jammed as well. My family knew I had been at the World Series game, and quickly learned that everyone at the ballpark was OK, but I wasn't able to talk to them for hours afterward.

The house I was renting was undamaged; a bookcase in the garage tipped over, breaking some jars of jam, but that was the only impact. I was in escrow on a house in Redwood City, and had it reinspected before deciding whether to proceed with the sale. There were a few minor cracks, but it had held up just fine.

Ken and I returned to Candlestick Park 10 days later for the resumption of the World Series, and bought our "I Survived Game 3" T shirts.

For months after the quake I had occasional dreams about earthquakes, some of them a little scary. And some behaviours were changed; for a long time I was wary of being stopped under an overpass while driving, and would often wait until there was enough clearance to get through without being caught underneath.

So this all happened 20 years ago today, but the memories remain strong.

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