Recollecting the March 22, 1957 5.3 Earthquake

03/06/07 - posted by Paul Judge

It's coming up soon, the half century anniversary of the 5.3 quake of March 22, 1957. Its epicenter was in Daly City though Henry Doelger had nothing to do with it. I don't blame him either, it did a pretty good sum of damage to homes, buildings, and utilities there and throughout the San Francisco peninsula. This earthquake and its aftershocks were the biggest deal to rattle these parts since April 18, 1906 until supplanted at 5:04 PM October 17, 1989 when Loma Prieta said, “Howdy!” Though a couple of jolts in October of 1969 were worthy attention getters, too.

I was in the first grade at St. Thomas Apostle School at 39th & Balboa. We were lining up to go to lunch. I was third in line near the classroom doorway; a rarity because I remember usually being towards the back of those lines. We were standing along the front wall against a chalkboard when we heard the approaching rumble and then the floor and walls began swaying. Sister Madeline Marie, the nicest nun I'd ever have, swept the two kids in front of me into her arms. I grabbed onto the chalk tray and felt the walls moving. Behind me I heard classmates letting out nervous laughter or beginning to whimper.

It's said that earthquakes don't make noise. I sure remember as a kid that they seemed to. They sounded like approaching streetcars only deeper and louder. One particular time I was in bed drifting off to sleep. I heard that familiar rumble rising from a distance, next a slight swaying that customarily started the lead counter weights strung in the window frames to begin knocking, and then the house began shaking. Our family had its own scale of measuring the earthquakes we felt. Window weights that rattled = “small stuff”. Windowpanes that rattled and swinging light fixtures = “Better, but still small stuff”. Doors and cabinet covers moving and pictures shifting on the wall = “Getting There!” as in “stand in a doorway” if you can get to one. Plaster cracking and furniture bouncing = “Duck & Cover”. The family rule was never run out of the house during an earthquake. My folks were fearful that falling terra cotta tile that accented like cake decorations the roofline on the front of our house would nail us. The bedroom I shared with two of my sisters was the 'Sun Room' built one story up over a small backyard patio supported by three skinny 6” x 6” stilt posts. Man, during howling winter storms and earthquakes that room shook like the tail of a scratching, flea bit dog. After the house stopped moving on the particular night with which I began this paragraph (We rated it a “Better”.) I waited a while in anticipation that another quake might shortly follow. The light from my parents' room was on. My dad was reading his book. I called out to him declaring, “Dad, I think I'm allergic to earthquakes.” For decades he enjoyed recounting that event and the disembodied plaintive voice he heard coming from my darkened bedroom.

With class composure restored and our lunch boxes in hand Sister Madeline Marie led us out to the schoolyard. We sat on the green benches lining the perimeter of the play yard eating our lunch fare. It was a Friday so there weren't any baloney or meat loaf sandwich leavings to toss to the flocks of gulls that waited for handouts. They didn't pass up the tuna fish, cheese, or P.B. & J. scraps. By diet alone we made those birds be Catholic along with us. During play time there was plenty nervous excitement and anxious talk. The uniqueness of the day was made more apparent when after returning to our classroom our principal Sister Agnes Joseph announced over the intercom that all classes were to be let back outside to play for the rest of the school day. I couldn't concentrate on any play activities. I was scared. I stayed as far away from St. Thomas church, the parish rectory, and the school building as I could get. I'd heard our family stories and seen the Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald movie about the 1906 San Francisco Quake and Fire. I wasn't going to be squashed like a bug because I was playing dodge ball or four square next to some buildings that could collapse, even if God did own them. I kept watching the gold cross atop the church steeple to see if it trembled. I pushed my clenched hands into the pockets of my salt & pepper uniform pants and paced the far reaches of the play yard. I was sure the whole shebang was going to come down.

After school I walked home with a couple friends being sure to tightrope walk the curbside away from building fronts yet remain out of harms way of street side truck and auto traffic. Shop owners had swept up broken glass and boarded some of their windows. When I got home my Mom greeted me at the front door holding the hand of my younger sister Mary. I sought the comfort of Mom's soothing warm welcome and buried my face into the front of her apron. Mary and Mom had experienced an adventure of their own. When the quake struck they were pushing a shopping cart into Sutro Super Market at the top of our hill at 43rd and Geary. They watched as the contents of the store shelves fell into the aisle walkways. Some customers were banged pretty hard but Mom and my sister escaped harm. They turned around and returned home to find lamps had fallen off furniture tables, pictures had fallen and cracked on the floor, and cabinet contents were spilt across the kitchen. But the biggest upset was discovering the gold fish had flopped out of its bowl and was gasping for water. Mom plopped the fish back into the bowl, cleaned house and put things back in order only to have to do so again on the occurrence of strong aftershocks that rocked throughout the day. The gold fish was saved twice from the same fate before the drastic measure taken to place it in the half filled bathtub. When family members told our account of that day of earthquakes in '57 the episode with the ‘Gold Fish that ending up in the Bathtub’ played a headline role to amused laughter.

I didn't want to spend the remaining daylight in my house. The aftershocks were too upsetting. I gathered a few toys and props and played outside on the street with my pals on the block thinking with a child's logic that if my feet were moving fast enough I couldn't feel the earthquakes. Us kids talked with excitement and bravado about the quakes but I was really weak in the knees. During a moment lost in play we drifted into Bobby Bacon's garage where we heard his parent's house above us begin to creak and then move and shake. We scurried out of there really fast. Street side again I positioned myself away from the power lines strung and knotted overhead like cobwebs. When I was finally coerced back home that evening for dinner I heard my big sisters tell how they'd experienced the quakes from inside their tall downtown office buildings (the Telephone and Russ buildings). Our Dad working on the Waterfront told of first hearing the rumbling noise of the quake. He looked up to see the buildings of the City skyline swaying. From the end of the pier on the Embarcadero, he and other longshoremen saw the quake approaching like a series of ocean swells undulating towards them. They were jostled about and bounced up off of their feet. Dad said it reminded him of watching a bowl of Jell-O jiggle. I wouldn't get my chance to see the ground act that way until ‘Loma Prieta’.

Local radio and TV station news calmly reported information about the scope and intensity of damage and harm. One of the weirdest images that I recall was the windowpanes of a storefront or cafe that had momentarily parted then closed pinching a curtain or fabric of some kind so that a slip of it remained caught part way outside at the corner window joint. Slumped streets and roadways, cracked stucco houses, broken chimneys and windows, leaking water mains and storage tanks, and a few injuries seemed to be the extent of the day's damage. It was hardly a disaster on a scale with 1906 but it registered, at age 7, large enough for me. I lay awake that night swaying with the after shocks until I nodded off. The next morning trying to absorb Saturday morning cartoons to escape the memory of the whole shaky business my sister Barbara excitedly told me that she'd read that some guy had predicted a really big earthquake would take place in 1968 (Hmm. Edgar Cayce perhaps, remember that scare/hoot?)! I soothed my concern about that news thinking that it sounded impossibly too far into the future to worry about. That weekend Dad puttied over the new cracks in the walls and stucco on the front of the house, touching up with some paint, and soon in our home only our memory of the day survived. For years afterwards when driving through Daly City or Westlake we'd notice and comment about the extent of patched cracks and discolored paint slapped on many of the homes in those communities.

Researching this seismic event I was truly surprised to learn that prior to the noontime quake there had been two fore shocks that morning. I must have been walking to school and playing during morning recess for I have no recollection about them nor had I heard mention of them.

Here are some interesting links about the event:

March 22nd, 1957 5.3 Magnitude Earthquake / 'Daly City epicenter Quake':
http://www.winwaed.com/sci/daly/dalycity.shtml

Personal Accounts from March 22nd, '57 Quake:
http://www.winwaed.com/sci/daly/daly_accounts.shtml

Account from The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco:
http://www.sfmuseum.org/alm/quakes3.html

If you want to check out what’s shaking right now in California, North America, or the world check out the following site. Send it to folks you know in other parts of the country so they get second or third thoughts about moving out here. It’ll shake ‘em up:
http://quake.wr.usgs.gov/recenteqs/latestfault.htm

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