Loma Prieta Earthquake Stories

I had taken the year off work to go back to college in preparation of a career change, and now finances were starting to get lean. I had applied at several Bay Area municipalities, including Oakland, for building inspector positions. But since I had not previously worked as an inspector, securing that first job was more difficult than I had anticipated.

I was finished with my classes for the day, so when my fourteen year old daughter asked me for a ride to the library I was more than happy to take her. I remained in my truck in the parking lot as she went in to the library to check out a book. I was backed in to a parking space facing the building, and thought it a good time to prepare for a meeting scheduled for that evening. I had the radio tuned the Bay Area major news station KGO radio for the World Series pre-game show.

The weather was warm, but the breeze was typical bay area cool, making life very comfortable. I had settled into a nice cruise mode halfway lost in my book and half listening to the game prep, when I felt the truck bounce. I have many friends in the area, a good percentage of which are practical jokers and most knew my distinctive red, dually truck, so I assumed someone had snuck up behind me from the other side of the parking lot to shake the back of the truck. I sat up with a start and began laughing, expecting to see Melvyn hanging on the tailgate. So I spun around chuckling to myself to see no Melvyn, or anyone else grabbed onto the truck’s tailgate. At that instant I knew, EARTHQUAKE!

As I turned back to face the building I could see others becoming aware of the shaking that was sending car alarms into palpatation and flipping light standards like whirling ropes around their bases. One man held onto his son as they stopped short right in front of my truck and froze to the moving ground waiting for the shaking to stop.

My immediate thoughts were of my daughter who had gone into the library building by herself, and I opened the door to run inside to find her. I had just set foot on the ground as the thought occured to me, ‘If that building collapses, I am NO good to her inside. Besides, the building is brand new, less than a year old, so if ANY buildng was going to stand the shaking this one would.’

So instead of running inside I decided to wait it out in place, standing inside my truck door looking at a father and son’s astonished facial expressions, and counting off the remainder of the event on my truck’s clock. Seconds ticked by, and the shaking continued… six seconds, nine seconds, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen seconds after i started counting the shaking stopped. Light poles continued dancing, alarms blared, Dad and son smiled at each other relieved that they were unharmed. I nodded acknowlegement to them as I slammed the truck door and ran to the building entrance.

When I arrived inside the buidling was illuminated only by the bright autumn afternoon sun. The power was out. The decorative mobile, a full size canoe was still swinging side to side like it was floating on some invisible lake with waves whipped up by a strong wind. I rushed up to the second floor and found Jennifer walking calmly to the top of the stair where we met. I hugged her and asked if she was alright, or if she was scared. Jennifer is very much like me, not easily excitable, and she seemed to be taking the event as a routine occurance. She smiled and said, ‘No Dad, I’m fine.’ I told her we would come back for the books another time as we walked back to the truck to drive home.

I commented to Jen that this shaker felt like a ‘6.7 or 6.9’ because it was similar to the Sylmar quake I had lived through in 1971 in Southern California. I noticed that KGO was no longer broadcasting, as well as most other of my presets. I tuned to my favorite rock station 104.5 KFOG and it was going strong and just starting to give reports of the quake. I mused that it couldn’t have been all THAT bad, however, because as Jen and I drove home there was no apparant damage other than car alarms blasting.

When we got home a few minutes later, my wife Diane said my brother had called and said the ‘Bay Bridge had collapsed.’ I shook that off as sensational observation from my often provaracating sibling. Our home TV cable seemed to be the only property casualty at the house, so I grabbed the portable set and pulled out the rabbit ears, (who even knows what those are these days) and tuned to the channel 4 news station. The traffic helicopter was flying around and showing scenes of, guess what, a COLLAPSED BAY BRIDGE! Then as the camera panned to the east we all saw at the same instant the most unimaginable scene ever… the destroyed Cypress Elevated Freeway Structure. The whole family was just incredulous that the shaking that seemed to cause no more than amusement had so utterly leveled such an engineered structure.

The rest of the evening was spent watching the reports pouring in from all around the Bay. We had the meeting at our home as scheduled, but by 7:30 our power had gone out and we had to light up a lantern while a group of about 20 gathered to study the Bible. We all noted how earthquakes would be one mark of what Jesus Christ called the ‘last days’.

Ten days later, the City of Oakland hired me as a Building Inspector. The first two months of my employment included damage assessment of structures and homes, and escorting visiting volunteer structural engineers around town to observe the damage first hand, scooting back and forth under what was left of the destroyed Cypress Freeway.

It was the best experience a novice building inspector could ever gain.

Murray McCool January 27, 2010

Share Your Story!

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.

Share this page: