October 17, 1989, 5:04pm

I remember everything about that day 20 years ago.

It was a Tuesday. In the morning, Rebecca and I made plans to meet at Slim’s after work to buy tickets for the upcoming Phranc show. Then she went off on Muni downtown to her job, and I took a bus and walked to my job, at an architects’ office, on Townsend at 4th Street. On the top floor. In a brick building. On landfill.

I had only been working there for about a week, I think. I was temping. For lunch, I walked the couple blocks up 4th toward Bryant and ate Mexican food. It was a balmy, hot, humid, windless and dusty day. I ate a big lunch…

At 5:00pm, we were getting ready to leave work. I was sitting nearest the window to Townsend Street. My workmate Roxanne was sitting at a different desk across the room. Towards the entryway, there was a huge vase full of flowers against the wall, then the door to the emergency stairs, then the entry door.

At 5:04pm the rumbling began. It was fairly strong but not long, and I heard it as much as felt it. I heard the sounds of the bricks, just a couple feet away, rumbling together — a sound I shall never forget. I hadn’t gotten under the desk by the time it stopped – but as soon as it stopped, it started again, with a vengeance. I looked over at Roxanne just as she dropped out of sight below her desk. I promptly dropped under mine. The noise and the shaking was so incredibly violent; I was holding my desk so it wouldn’t rock away; I was holding the desk drawers that were flailing out. I was trying to keep my typewriter — typewriter! — from jumping off my desk and hitting me. I might have even groaned somewhat. It went on forever — and yet it had all stopped only fifteen seconds later.

Then there was silence. Which also seemed to last forever. But it must have only been seconds later that I found myself running down the emergency-lit stairwell the floor flights down to Townsend below. I’ll never forget (well, everything, obviously) the flower vase on my way out the door. The vase had lifted itself up and flown several feet, and laid there, a perfectly flattened smashed version of itself, flowers in tact, on the floor in my path.  I never returned to that job and never saw Roxanne again.

Outside, there was dust and heat and thick air. People were waiting in line at CalTrain phones (hard to believe – no cell phones, right!). I promptly thought of contacting my family, then about Rebecca. Was she stuck underground on Muni? Was she OK? I took off down Townsend towards our meeting point.

There was a huge cloud of thick smoke coming from the Marina area. I think I had already heard rumours of the Bay Bridge having fallen down. Then, two blocks from my work, I reached 6th Street at Townsend.

6th Street between Townsend and Bluxome; C.E. Meyer, United States Geological Survey; courtesy Wikipedia

6th Street between Townsend and Bluxome; C.E. Meyer, United States Geological Survey; courtesy Wikipedia

Down the short block, there was dust, there were a lot of people gathered, and there was a big pile of bricks. Somehow, I remember people were not moving very quickly — something I could hardly comprehend. I started towards the bricks; someone told me this: “You better not go any further; there are people buried under there.” Later I found out that five people died when the bricks had fallen on top of them as they were getting into their cars to go home.

I started to feel sick and worried about Rebecca and I started running towards Slim’s at 11th and Folsom. Homeless people had sprung into action and, since there was no power, were directing traffic in the SOMA area. I was terribly relieved when I found Rebecca, leaning up against the wall at Slim’s, waiting for me just as we had prearranged.

We had a beer at the Paradise Lounge on the corner and were watching a TV in there, that for some reason had power, when we figured we oughtta go see about our apartment.

It was now growing dark outside. The long hallway to our apartment on the second floor in the (brick) Skyline Building at Church and Market was dark, and the smoke detectors were going “beep, beep, beep,” which they would regularly do for weeks to come every time power went out again, as seemed to happen with the biggest aftershocks. We pushed to open our door — at first, the door was stuck and we were freaked out that it was wrecked inside. But it was just the stowed-away mirror doors that had fallen and blocked our path. There were a lot of cracks inside and broken plaster, and our refrigerator door was open — but other than that we were in-tact. I made a quick call to my parents to tell them we were OK. Then friends arrived.

Since we had a great central location, we were fortunate to have many visitors that night. Becky, who lived just across the street on 14th, came by. Later in the evening Lisa showed up — she worked in San Francisco and was waiting for the bus to take her back to Oakland when the quake hit. Others came by. It wasn’t until the next day that we heard where Becky’s roommate Angela was… Follow her blog for more on that.

We went and stood in line at the corner store and bought canned beer, batteries, and white bread, which we ate in candlelight, while aftershocks continued to freak us out all night.

That’s the basic story. There are many many strong memories in the shaky days, weeks, and months and years that came, such as standing in line for hours trying to give blood (when I was too faint by the end to donate), and being glued constantly to the TV (once the power came back on) to people I came to know as my guardian Angels, Pete Wilson and Anna Chavez. Every day for years after that — for as long as we lived in that apartment — I gazed at the leaves on the tree outside the window to see if they were moving. When there was still and calm, I was nervous. I craved the wind.

It was only 15 seconds those 20 years ago — and at 7.1, which somehow years later shrank to 6.9 on the Richter Scale, not nearly as big as some of the recent quakes we’ve seen worldwide. And in a pretty well retrofit city. Yet, those fifteen short seconds and the time that followed altered my own personal landscape, forever.

As a result of those few 15 seconds, I am now permanently claustrophobic, a terrified flier, and nearly always consider what I’m driving over when I drive the Bay Bridge. To this day my heart sinks when there’s an earthquake, regardless of the size, especially in the middle of the night, because I don’t get back to sleep. I tune into the radio (and now Twitter more and more) to find community to pull me through till morning.

On the other hand, I enjoy wide open spaces, I can usually tell you where the nearest exit is (along with all the other exits), and I value my friends and community so greatly.

So I finally commit this to writing today, in deference to the memory of the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989, and to my friends and my community, and most of all, to the powers of nature — and of love.

6th street between Townsend and Bluxome, today

6th street between Townsend and Bluxome, today

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4 thoughts on “October 17, 1989, 5:04pm

  1. Pingback: Twitter Trackbacks for October 17, 1989, 5:04pm « Moya Watson [moyawatson.com] on Topsy.com

  2. Aw, Moya. How lucky we are that we’ve been friends this whole time, and years before That Day, even. I think I would’ve felt like I’d gone crazy if I had lost touch with all the people with whom I’d experienced that experience.

    I’ll always be grateful for you taking us in! I get a chill every time I visit SF and go past that intersection. I can’t fathom, still, the WHY and the HOW of the fact that everything in the universe changed during that brief shock of time.

    Now, time for me to post Part Two. I feel sick at the thought, but maybe I won’t have to dig deep with all this revisitation at the 25th anniversary!

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