It has been a beautiful day here in San Francisco—very warm, very still and no fog... or as people like to say “earthquake weather.” Twenty years ago today it was also warm and still, Mr. Peacock was working at a design studio that sold & designed fonts and published a design magazine in Berkeley, California (next door to Oakland, California). The warehouse style office was situated next door to a sake factory and a gay bathhouse near the Berkeley Marina. The day before, I lost my wallet on the subway with all of my cash, drivers license, bank card…everything. I was a newbie at this job. It was just me and my two bosses (who were married) at this gig.
I was in the back area finishing up packaging the purchased magazines and fonts (that were going to be picked up by UPS) when the electricity flickered on and off for a second…I’ll never forget what then followed.
For 15 seconds, at 5:05pm, on October 17, 1989 the 7.1 Loma Prieta earthquake occurred. You’re supposed to get under a door jam during an earthquake, but when the quake started I completely froze and couldn’t move. I could hear one of my bosses yelling to me, “Get out of there and let’s get outside.” All of the industrial steel bookcases with the books and magazines toppled to the floor, and I ran towards the front door. The carpet-covered floor was rolling and buckling—it looked like waves under the carpet, no exaggeration. There was also a very loud rumble, almost like the sound of thunder.
Those 15 seconds were in slow motion—it felt like minutes had passed when the rolling finally subsided. Everyone was standing in the middle of the streets and cars were pulled over on the sides of the roads—everyone looked shocked and stunned.
Above: The Bay Bridge—looking from Berkeley towards San Francisco, and Treasure Island (in the middle).
One of my bosses (a Dutch expatriate) jokingly said, “Welcome to California.” The three of us went back inside and they assumed it was just another earthquake—not realizing how big and how much damage it caused. I was shaken up. I had been in smaller earthquakes before in Los Angeles but nothing like this. I lived in San Francisco, and they asked if I wanted to spend the night at their place in Berkeley, but I just wanted to go home to my apartment and be with my friends. The electricity was knocked out, so we left the mess and locked up.
They went home…and I walked to the bus stop. I could take the subway or bus, but I decided I didn't want to be under the water (on the subway) if we had any aftershocks (the subway tunnel runs on the floor of the bay from Berkeley/Oakland to San Francisco), so I chose to wait for the bus.
As I waited for the bus, the streets seemed to get more chaotic, like a busy anthill. Droves of people started walking by me and someone shouted, “The bus isn’t coming because the top tier of the Bay Bridge collapsed.” (see photo below)
From that moment on everything became surreal that evening. I started walking towards the Berkeley campus, not sure what I was doing or how I would get back to San Francisco.
I could see the top of building pediments from the older 1920’s building had broken off and crushed the windshields of cars below (see above), and smoke was billowing all along the hills of Berkeley from broken gas lines—and of course sirens everywhere. Cell phones weren’t prevalent then, and there were long lines of people at pay phones trying to get make calls. Some streets had so much damage, while other streets looked almost normal and were unscathed.
I decided to sit down at another bus stop bench and just wait a moment until things settled down. As I waited, a Hare Krishna came up to me and said, “You are the supreme jewel…” and handed me an index card rubber stamped with the words “supreme jewel.” My friends jokingly referred to me as Supreme Jewel in the following weeks.
By now it was getting dark, and an older man sat down with me on the bench. He kept looking at me and then introduced himself and shook my hand. He was very scruffy (he could have been homeless), and seemed strange to me, so I tried to ignore him. I glanced over and his pants were unzipped and he was masturbating. I decided to go directly to the BART (the subway station).
When I got to the BART station it was a mob scene, with people sitting everywhere. The trains were shut down because the tunnel under the bay was cracked and leaking water. So I sat down and waited with the crowds.
Around 1am, they announced that buses would take people to awaiting ferries to San Francisco. I waited in line for a bus, and finally boarded a ferry boat heading for San Francisco. It was completely quiet and very dark outside (the electricity was still knocked out). Everyone on the ferry was very amorous, I think because of the emotional stress from the quake. Many people (many strangers) were making out (I wasn’t).
As we approached San Francisco, you could see huge billows of smoke from fires, over the completely darkened city. There were just a few twinkles of light here and there from generators.
When I finally got to my apartment around 2:30 am, my 3 three roommates were all buzzed from alcohol sitting around lit candles. The water had shut off (for 2 days) and the only liquid we had in the apartment was cheap vodka. Luckily, our place didn't have any serious damage. Some of the door frames tilted a bit during the quake, and then the doors wouldn't shut within the frame, but nobody was hurt...and our building was still intact. Our neighborhood made it through the quake!
The days following the big quake all of the bars were very crowded and everyone was very friendly. We had many aftershocks too—some as big as 4.0. I gathered my favorite snapshots and mementos and put them in a backpack with a flashlight. It weighed a ton, but I carried that backpack around with me for about a year, like a security blanket in case we had another emergency and I couldn’t get home.
The next day I got a phone call that someone turned in my wallet I lost on the subway (the day before the quake) with everything still in it—including the money!
Above: People waiting in line for fresh water. Thankfully, our water came back on at the end of the second day after the quake.
I am very thankful that nobody I knew was hurt in the quake, a that my office and apartment were built on bedrock instead of landfill.
We still have earthquakes (recent activity here), and my heart stops every time the electricity briefly flickers on and off. My apartment where I live now—creaks loudly and feels like a tree-house swaying during the smaller earthquakes (3.0-5.0) we've had in the past few years. It’s a reminder to everyone to have a plan in case of an emergency—who to call, where to meet, etc… And have at least 5 gallons of water on hand, and canned foods. I better go get some bottled water right now—all I have on hand is some good port and few bottles of champagne!