- The Loma Prieta earthquake took place in Northern California on October 17, 1989 – 30 years ago today.
- The violent quake killed 63 people in the Bay Area and injured almost 3,800 more. It caused the Cypress Freeway to collapse, along with numerous buildings and part of the Bay Bridge.
- In this story, author Laura McCamy recalls what it was like to live through the earthquake – and how the impact lingers to this day.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
When the tremors started, I crawled under my desk.
It was 5:04 p.m. on October 17, 1989 – exactly 30 years ago today. I was on the fifth floor of the Adam Grant Building on Sansome Street in San Francisco’s Financial District, in the law office where I worked part-time.
I wouldn’t normally have been at work that late, but my boss allowed me to use the office computer to write my Master’s thesis, which was due the next day. The lawyer I worked for was still in the office, as was the receptionist, but everyone else had left for the day.
In the two years I had lived in the Bay Area, I had experienced several moderate earthquakes, and I had been schooled in earthquake safety protocols.
Still, I felt silly under the desk at first, because the quake began with just a gentle rocking. But it kept going and kept getting stronger. I watched the light on the power cord that connected my computer flicker and wondered if my thesis would be damaged if the power went out (it was).
The shaking intensified. Empty boxes fell off the tall metal shelving behind my desk and tumbled to the floor. I started to worry that the heavy shelves would fall over onto the desk. Suddenly, crawling under my desk didn’t seem like such a bad idea.
Moments later, when the quake ended, the first voice I heard was my boss, asking if I was OK. He had stood in the door to his office, watching the buildings across the street smack into each other. Within minutes, a cloud of dust rose from the street to our fifth floor windows.
The magnitude-6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake lasted just 15 seconds, but it was a momentous 15 seconds. Brick buildings crumbled in Santa Cruz, the Cypress Freeway overpass in Oakland crashed down onto the lower level, a section of the Bay Bridge collapsed, and buildings in San Francisco’s Marina neighbourhood sank and tilted when the ground turned to quicksand during the shaking.
I didn’t know any of that. In 1989, people didn’t have mobile phones or internet access. The power went out right after the earthquake. All I knew was that it was the biggest earthquake I had felt since I moved to California.
My two coworkers and I cautiously made our way down the stairs. The staircase was against the outer wall of the building and we could hear bits of debris falling in the space between buildings.
On the street, it quickly became clear that we couldn’t take transit to get home. In San Francisco, many of the buses run on overhead electrical wires, and the Muni train system needs power to run, too. With no power, the few buses that ran were packed, so the three of us joined thousands of other office workers on an eerily quiet trek out of downtown.
Some people had portable radios and would periodically share bits of news with anyone walking nearby. “The Bay Bridge is down.” “The Marina is on fire.” I found it hard to believe. But we soon saw the black cloud of smoke rising over the Marina and reality sunk in that this was, perhaps, the Big One that Californians waited nervously for.
My house in the Castro District was the closest, so we walked there first. Someone had parked a car in the driveway with the door open and the radio on, sharing the latest news. Two of my roommates were sitting on the steps, unable to get in – the earthquake had caused the building to shift and the deadbolt was now stuck. After I drove my coworkers home, we jimmied the back door with a crowbar. Luckily, the wood-frame Victorian building where we lived wasn’t otherwise damaged.
The Walgreens on the corner opened its doors and handed out free batteries and flashlights that night. A former roommate came over with her boyfriend and her cat. It was hours before my third roommate got home; she had been at the World Series game at Candlestick Park.
The World Series in 1989 was a rare matchup between the two Bay Area teams: the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants. Workers had decamped early to attend Game 3 at Candlestick Park or watch it from home. This fact would turn out to save countless lives – on a regular commuting day, the death toll of 63 might could have been much higher. And the world saw the earthquake in real time on television.
That first night, we knew less about the damage than friends and relatives in other parts of the country, who frantically tried to call and make sure we were OK but couldn’t get through on jammed phone lines. Six of us slept on the floor in the living room with our heads under a big table, fearful of aftershocks.
As I write about that day, my hands shake and my heart beats faster. Before 1989, I thought earthquakes were fun, sort of like Mother Nature’s roller coaster. After the Loma Prieta earthquake, it wasn’t the shaking itself that left me scared every time the ground moved – it was the aftermath. There were days of heartbreaking searches through the rubble, hoping to find survivors. People went weeks without East Bay access because of the damaged Bay Bridge. There were years of repairs.
Today, I live close to the Hayward Fault, which is forecast to be the next to rupture, though no one can predict when.
So every time I feel an earthquake, I feel a little frisson of fear, knowing what could happen when the next Big One hits.
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