Loma Prieta Earthquake Stories

I was in my office on the 16th floor of a new office building the afternoon of October 17, 1989. I had tried several times that day to get a call through to the prescription refill message line at Kaiser Medical Center; every attempt met with a busy signal until I called at 5:00 pm. I was listening to the message and waiting for the “beep” when the room started swaying. Reluctant to hang up after so many attempts, and seated “safely” across the room from the nearest window, I stayed on the phone… until it went dead. At that point, I sat under my desk and waited for the swaying to stop.

Once things settled down, I met up with some of my co-workers in the hallway and we surveyed the common areas; there was virtually no damage but also no electricity. About 10 of us began the descent down 16 flights of stairs. Because our building was new and there had been no damage, we were quite surprised to hear the actual impact of the earthquake.

Perhaps my biggest challenge related to the earthquake was my inability to get my car. The parking garage in the Financial District where I parked used elevators to move cars from the entrance to the actual parking floors. My car was on the third floor and the lack of electricity prevented me from getting it out. If I had been living in San Francisco at the time, this would not have been such a problem. But my apartment was in Foster City, some 15 miles south. Fortunately my boyfriend (now husband) had just given me a key to his apartment on Clay Street. So, I grabbed a change of clothes from my car, as well as a nice young lady I met in the parking garage, and headed for his apartment. The reason I took pity on the other stranded driver (Judy), was that she had driven up to San Francisco from San Mateo for a job interview that started at 5:00 (and, it would seem, ended promptly at 5:03). As amusing as I found her story, I felt terrible that she had no place else to go.

At my boyfriend’s place, the first thing I noticed was that his bike was missing. This could mean only one thing: he’d decided to take advantage of the early end to the work day to go for a nice long ride. So, Judy and I looked for candles and other things we thought we’d need when it got dark. Then we waited. My boyfriend came home at dusk and we all settled down to a nice dinner of anything we found in the fridge and a good bottle of wine. We sat on the roof for an hour or two and looked at the city. There were lights on in Marin and the East Bay; but the only lights in the city were emergency lights in the office buildings. It looked a bit like Blade Runner.

In the morning, we all walked to the Marina to survey the damage. This was less out of idle curiosity and more because a good friend who owned a condo on North Point was traveling and we wanted to see that his place was still standing. The damage was quite startling. Entire residential garages collapsed with the apartments above them nearly one floor lower than they had been the day before. Large buckles in the pavement. The smell of old wood and earth suddenly disrupted. They are images I’ll never forget.

I am still sad for the families of those who were lost that day. I’m grateful no one I know was injured, although several friends lost property. And I hope never to experience another earthquake quite like that one.

Elizabeth A Stelow April 13, 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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