25 Years Since Loma Prieta

10/17/14 - posted by Frank Dunnigan - dunnigan<at>sonic.net

Unbelievably, it has been 25 years today since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

It was my day off work that day, and I had just finished grocery shopping at QFI in Stonestown, and was driving home to 22nd & Pacheco. Avoiding 19th Avenue as I still do, I was driving down Winston Drive, past the old Sutro Library, to Lake Merced Blvd. when the quake hit. To me, it felt like all four tires had fallen off the car at the same time. I slowed a bit, and continued downhill, past the Lowell parking lot where cars were bouncing up and down, with many car alarms going off. Many drivers along Lake Merced Blvd. must have had the same reaction I did, and were stopped, walking around their cars and looking at their tires. Then it hit me that there had been an earthquake—a fact that was confirmed once I reached Sunset Blvd. and saw that all the traffic signals were out.

Still, I wasn’t too concerned—as I drove along the Boulevard, the trees were OK, and passing Quintara, I saw that SI was still standing, with just a few kids milling around the sidewalk casually—a typical after-school scene. It wasn’t until I turned onto Ortega that it hit me—there were lots of adults on the street, talking with excited expressions, and holding onto more children and babies than I had seen in the area in a long time.

Once I arrived at home, I was relieved to see all the houses on my block still standing, but as soon as I opened the front door, I found kitchen cabinets open and many dishes and glasses smashed on the floor, as well as dozens of books spilling out of bookcases in the hall and living room. Water from the toilet tank had sloshed around enough to spill out onto the floor. Such are the perils of homes built on sand.

I then went to check on Mom just a few blocks away at 18th & Vicente—she and her sister were sitting calmly in the back yard, just as she had done with me back at the time of the 1957 earthquake. They were listening to a transistor radio and chatting with the neighbors, sharing snacks and glasses of wine. On her block, there was no damage to contents at all to the homes or to their contents—the benefits of being built on rock.

Then I went to check on my widowed aunt in the Marina—she was fine and had no damage to her home or its contents, though a couple of houses just one block away had slid off their foundations, and the massive fire and collapse of apartment buildings at Beach & Divisadero was less than two blocks away from her.

I wasn’t about to take Doyle Drive (a rattle-trap structure even then) from the Marina to the Sunset, so I drove up the Fillmore Street hill and then west on California Street to Arguello, still seeing hundreds of people on the streets, with no traffic lights operating and only an occasional small cluster of streetlights on. Clearly, many homes were being lighted by candles set in the front windows.

As I meandered through the Richmond District trying to figure out the best way to cross the Park, I saw several homes along the inner portion of Anza Street with severe damage to their stucco and front stairs. Likewise, along Irving in the Inner Sunset, there was obvious damage to many buildings, including some large apartment houses.

On the way home, I went to check on my friend Linda’s father’s house at 27th & Noriega—ever since he had passed away a few weeks earlier, I was keeping an eye on it for her. Lots of broken dishes and glasses in that 1920s-built house, along with a huge portion of plaster ceiling in the living room that was loosened and about to crash down and severely cracked archways around the dining room.

Life was certainly unsettled that warm night and many of us slept with a flashlight in our pillowcases for a good long time afterwards. Electricity was out for the rest of that evening and night—I learned that a flashlight, stood on its end and aimed at the ceiling, was the best way to light a room. Phone service was sporadic for at least the next 2 or 3 days.

The events and my reactions to them seem so real in my mind, that it’s hard to believe it was 25 years ago and that I was only 37 years old at the time. Let’s see, in another 25 years, I’ll be…oh my!

What are your recollections?

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