Loma Prieta Earthquake Stories

I was at work at in Fremont. When the quake hit I was sitting at my desk getting ready to go home. Hearing glass breaking and feeling the building shake violently, as a native Californian, I felt this might be a big one depending on how far away it was. I always try to immediately guess the magnitude and remember pegging this one at least a 6. Immediately got on phone to my wife at home and surprisingly got through. Our home was mile from Loma Prieta Ave in the Santa Cruz mountains.

“Wow, did you feel that at the house?” I asked casually. Angered at my relaxed attitude, she said hysterically “the house is destroyed!!”. “Calm down, you’re exaggerating. Now, what really happened?” I asked. “David’s (our 18 year old son) car is destroyed, here’s David” He got on the phone. ” Dad, the chimney fell off and crushed my new car (just bought it 2 days ago) and the house is destroyed! We’re leaving! Meet us at Mary’s”.

David was upstairs in his room and was thrown to the floor and a large dresser fell on top of him. Desperate to get to his mom downstairs in the kitchen, he threw it off but was thrown down several times. She braced herself between the island and the counter and watched as everything shot out of the cabinets, not just fell. She was struck by dishes, glass, cans, etc. She watched as the 100 ft redwood trees just off our deck swayed at ridiculous angles, smashed into each other, and many large branches broke off and crashed into the house. The sounds were terrifying.

The visual of all this and hearing his fear shocked me into the intensity of what happened. They were going to a friend’s house in Santa Cruz and I would meet them there. We were unaware we would go through 15 hours of hell until we met. The phones were useless from that point.

I got in my car and started home from Fremont. I usually listen to KGO for breaking Bay Area News, but no signal. On driving by their transmission towers near Dumbarton Bridge I saw why, their towers were down.

I got to Los Gatos without much incident but found Hwy 17 into the Santa Cruz Mountains and home was closed. The CHP said road was buckled and impassable and no telling how long before it opened. I went to a bar in downtown Los Gatos that was open with a lot of people arriving telling what they knew. Los Gatos had power and TV was working. A group invited me and some fellow stranded Hwy 17 commuters to their house in town for food and possible phone use. About 20 of us congregated at this house and watched for news on TV. Occasionally, one of us would go check out the roadblock on Hwy 17 for status.

Many of these stranded commuters had families up in the Santa Cruz Mountains they were unable to reach. From Los Gatos, we could see plumes up in the mountains and realized these were fires caused by propane tanks breaking loose from their mounts. Several moms were hysterical since they had kids at home up there and no way to get to them, talk to them, or know if they were ok. By now we learned the epicenter was in the SC Mountains (the very hills we were looking at) and it measured a 7.1 Richter. I felt so fortunate that I had talked to my wife and son if even briefly and could only imagine what these others felt who had no communication with their families at home.

We watched TV reports of the Bay Bridge and collapsed Apartment houses in the Marina in SF and wondered what the destruction was like in the mountains on the epicenter. It was frustrating as there was no news coverage anywhere near the epicenter in Santa Cruz County since like us, the crews couldn’t get there.

We went into town looking for a pay phone that might work. I was amazed at the broken concrete sidewalks and shattered storefronts. Yuppie couples were strolling along the broken streets taking in the scene sipping from wine glasses they carried.

A pay phone was found working at the Bakers Square Restaurant. I watched as an obviously exhausted police officer using the phone to call his family. I could hear him telling them that he was OK and asking who had been heard from. He instructed them to turn off gas valves and such and stay put. He would be on duty indefinitely and try to talk to them later. It struck me what true dedication costs these public heroes in disasters.

My wife and son left the house immediately after we talked but she didn’t get very far. A land slide blocked the road. As they sat there wondering what to do, a neighbor woman from the house next to ours came out on the road with her two small children. She was covered with blood. The young children were terrified and crying. Apparently the quake shattered an older plate glass window and cut her badly.

Dee and my son got her into the car and bound up her wounds as best they could. Just then another neighbor was trying to get to his house but was blocked by the slide from the other side. After a quick exchange, he climbed over and carried the injured woman and children to his car so he could get her medical help. No thought now of his home, he would have to wait to find out if his house was destroyed or what and help his neighbor. He was a ranking officer in the Hell’s Angels and was doing what real angels do.

Dee and David were wondering if they should crawl over the slide when another neighbor came around the bend in his bulldozer. He had heard of the slides and fired up his CAT and cleared the slide in about 10 minutes and went on to clear many more into the night. A fireman told them to go to the Middle School on Summit Road as a Red Cross Unit was being set up there and they couldn’t get to Santa Cruz or Los Gatos anyway. On arriving the scene was like a Hollywood disaster movie. There were hundreds of people all either evacuated their burnt or collapsed home or prevented getting home due to slides and fallen trees.

A Medivac helicopter was departing with the neighbor. She did not look good and had lost a lot of blood. Another neighbor on our road was rescued after her house collapsed on her. Some men with chain saws freed her but her back was broken.

Hwy 17 finally opened up near midnight after dozing the broken sections that had buckled. It was about 11 pm. Only residents in the area were allowed to pass and the CHP warned me that it would be rough going. I was shocked as I drove up. The concrete divider was broken and cracked in many places and the pavement all torn up were it had buckled then dozed level. I turned on Summit Road and it was even worse. Large sections had split open forming big crevasses; several homes were smoldering piles of ash and in some cases still flaming from the propane fires. I just didn’t expect to see that from an earthquake. It all seemed like a war zone.

I got to my house and it was very eerie. No lights so everything was viewed in the spot of a flashlight. I turned off the circuit breakers and main propane valves. Walls were cracked and plumbing leaking. Everything in the kitchen was on the floor. Dishes, food, broken glasses, flour, sugar, a mess. Our 500 lb iron wood burning stove had walked across the living room and lay upside down. I picked up the phone and I was amazed to find it worked! I dialed a friend and he answered in amazement. He had heard from Dee and my daughter in SF who was frantic to know her parents and brother’s fate. Dee was stuck at the Red Cross Center on Summit Road and I left immediately to find her and David.

It was such a relief to find them and we had a sandwich and cup of coffee while we talked to some of our neighbors and shared the drama.

Of the 26 houses on our road, 20 were totaled. Our foundation was split, but worse, the whole hillside fissured. A geologist condemned the 2 acre hillside site. I was fortunate to have earthquake insurance.

So what was the big lesson from this experience? Find a way to insure communication with loved ones. Land lines or cell phones will probably not work. Get some good walkie talkies and agree on a channel likely to be free. Some models can go 5 miles, maybe further with line of sight. Appoint someone out of the area in another state that can act as a family clearing house for information. During these disasters it may be you can communicate with them but not locally. Just knowing if loved ones are OK can provide much needed peace of mind.

Michael February 28, 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: