Loma Prieta: 25 Years Later, the Images Are Still Haunting
So, let's go back to Oct. 17, 1989.
When I headed in to work my shift on the San Francisco Examiner city desk that afternoon, I knew it wouldn't be a routine shift. The Giants were about to take on the Oakland A's in Game 3 of the World Series, so in addition to random late-breaking mayhem, we'd have coverage of fan reaction to the game.
I was on a Daly City-bound BART train -- yeah, Daly City was as far as BART went back then -- that was stopped at Montgomery Street. I was already on my feet, at the door, ready to get out at the next stop, Powell Street. I don't remember what I was thinking, and I can't recall a single face among the scores of passengers who were on the car. But here's what happened next:
The BART car lurched to the side, as if a truck had hit it, prompting a collective "Ohhh!" of surprise from my fellow passengers. The car seemed to be bouncing, and when I looked out at the platform, I could see that seemed to be moving, too. Acoustic panels hanging from the ceiling swung back and forth. "Earthquake," I thought.
Following pure, stupid instinct, I jumped off the train and grabbed one of the platform pay phones and called the city desk. A fellow editor answered and I said something like, "Hey, I'm down at Montgomery BART and we just had an earthquake." As I said it, I realized I wasn't telling him anything he didn't know. But before we could discuss the news further, should I come into the office or stay out on the streets, the power went out and the phone went dead. I hung up and climbed the stairs up to Market Street to walk the rest of the way to the paper, over on Fifth just down from Mission.
Like everyone who had spent any time in the Bay Area, I'd felt many quakes, had heard all about the 1906 Earthquake and listened to endless talk of the Big One that was bound to come. But until this moment, I had never experienced a quake that was anything more than an unsettling curiosity. Emerging from the darkness of the BART station onto Market into a beautiful, clear late afternoon, I was struck by the fact there was virtually no traffic and that crowds had taken to the street in a state of excited confusion. Sirens were sounding off in the distance. I wondered where fires might have broken out.
I don't remember talking to anyone, but was looking at building facades to see if anything had broken loose and fallen to the sidewalk. Walking up the middle of Market, I turned around and looked back down the street. It's a sight that today would be instantly recorded on 10,000 smartphones: The flagpole atop the Ferry Building had been bent by the violence of the quake and was leaning at a steep angle. That image dispelled any doubt that something huge had taken place. And of course, that was just the beginning of a series of scenes that revealed the disaster's dimensions: the partial collapse of a section of the Bay Bridge; the shocking wreckage of the double-deck Cypress freeway in West Oakland, fires and building collapses in San Francisco's Marina, much of downtown Santa Cruz shaken to ruins.
By comparison with all that, the challenges of putting out a paper were minor, but real. The lights were out all over the city, so someone rigged up generators on the roof of our building so we could light up a conference room and plug in our handful of primitive but mostly dependable laptops. Our phone system was down, so we made do with three or four lines on a separate floor (and probably a few Gordon Gekko-era cellphones). Collecting dispatches and pictures from staffers all over the Bay Area, we spent most of the night piecing together a single edition -- was it 12 pages? -- and managed to get it printed. The lights didn't come on again until well into Night Two, and after that, things went back to something like normal in our newsroom.
That's not to say things ever really went back to feeling normal.
My last haunting image of the quake comes from the second or third night after the earth shook. I had carpooled back to the East Bay from the paper, which involved using the San Mateo Bridge, then riding up the Nimitz Freeway past the Oakland Coliseum and toward the wreckage of the Cypress structure. We took a detour around the disaster area, but in the distance, you could see the glare of floodlights and the outlines of cranes that had been brought in to extricate victims and remove the wreckage.
I thought about doing what might seem natural for a journalist: going and taking a look at the tableau of catastrophe. But there was something about the thought of the place, about the end that had come so suddenly to so many, that made me feel that a visit would be merely voyeuristic, disrespectful to both those who had perished and to those who were still working to recover victims.
So, I never saw the scene. But the blackness of that night, the silhouette of the cranes, the distant glare of those lights, is still imprinted in my mind as a hint of what I imagine we all could face next time.