Loma Prieta Earthquake Stories

When I was a kid there was a rumor that in the event of a big earthquake our town would break off from the rest of the California coast and float out into the middle of the ocean. My dad used to tell me it would be okay though, because if it were to happen they’d probably just build a Target out on our small island of a town, and we’d be just fine. Funny thing about it I guess. But sadly this never happened, and looking back now I almost wish it did. I don’t know what it was, or why I always secretly wanted our town to float out to sea. Maybe I have a longing desire for isolation, or religious aspirations for disaster. Or maybe I just thought it would be cool to have a Target in our town. But I don’t think that’s it either.

On October 17, 1989 the Loma Prieta earthquake struck the San Francisco Bay Area. It killed 62 people, injured 3,756 others and left more than 12,000 people homeless. The quake lasted all of 15 seconds. I was in preschool at the time, and can still remember it vividly. The walls seemed to gyrate; the clock jumped from position and executed an eloquent face dive to its unwilling death. We lunged under the tables with innocent chuckles, staring as every motionless object in the room suddenly burst into dance. And just like that it was over.

I don’t think I had yet gained the understanding of what had just happened. For me it was like being on one of those earthquake exhibits at the science center, but I guess it was a little different than that. Part of a double-decker bridge collapsed upon itself, as well as a 50-foot strip of the Bay Bridge. San Francisco’s Marina District basically crumbled under its lousy urban planning of building houses on top of landfill.

The 1989 World Series was also taking place at this time. The Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants were battling it out down at Candlestick Park. In fact there was even a columnist by the name of Kevin Cowherd of the Baltimore Sun who had already predicted the earthquake just that morning. In The San Jose Mercury News he wrote, “these are two teams for California and God only knows if they’ll ever get all the games in. An earthquake could rip through the Bay Area before they sing the anthem for Game 3.” And that was precisely when the earthquake struck. I don’t know if his column could be construed as irony, or just dumb chance. In any event there’s probably not much use overanalyzing it. The game was postponed for ten days though, so I guess he was right about a lot of things.

The game was also being broadcast live when they noticed the video signal beginning to break up. They promptly switched the broadcast to a backup episode of The Wonder Years, as the earthquake moved through the stadium like a wave. A few minutes later, as if nothing had happened a rumble came from the stadium as everyone began yelling “Play Ball, Play Ball.”

When I got home all but a single glass from the cupboard was out of place. We found the glass in pieces, shattered across the kitchen floor. My mom promptly cleaned up the pieces. When I went to bed I wasn’t disturbed. I wasn’t scared. I was disappointed! Why doesn’t anything exciting ever happen to me? Why isn’t our town floating in the middle of the ocean? Why is a single broken glass my only memento?

Perhaps I’m not old enough to understand the value of having everything in its place, the necessity of order and reasoning. I’m enthralled by natural disasters and mass chaos, and still manage to smile when everything goes to shit. I think everything needs to be turned upside down before anything is really gained or realized. What’s the use of order and stability if the earth doesn’t even abide by them?

In the end though, despite my fascination with destruction, I don’t think it’s really the disasters that interest me so much, but the manner in which we pick ourselves up in the aftermath.

Carol Bold April 30, 2010

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The Loma Prieta earthquake, which occurred on October 17, 1989, is the most recent large earthquake to strike the San Francisco Bay Area. Many individuals and families have stories and memories related to this damaging earthquake. To help us preserve these precious stories and learn more about the earthquake, please share your story and memories with us.

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