EARTHQUAKE DAY — 10/17/89 — 20 YEARS LATER

We had moved my mother and father from Sebastopol, California to the Bay Area so they could be near us as they both grew older.   In addition to their age, my mother was showing positive signs of Alzheimer’s.  My father was healthy,  fully aware and capable of caring for himself, and, to a limited degree, he could care for my mother as well.  Nevertheless, it was prudent that they be located nearby continuing to live by themselves, which is what they wanted.  Ken and I, as help, were just minutes away.  I saw them daily, did their shopping, watched over their finances and took care of anything else they needed.  It wasn’t necessary that I hover over them on a 24/7 basis, allowing Ken and me the time to pursue our own responsibilities and interests.

As with Football, baseball never held much importance in my life, but that year, the unusual win of both baseball leagues brought the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland “A”s together to duke it out for the BIG WIN.  Seeing one game of the World Series might be worth watching.  So when our son-in-law, Tim, said he could get tickets and asked if we wanted to go with him Ken was ecstatic and I said, “Why not?  It’s possibly a once-in-a-lifetime event.”

October 17 was a fabulous day for a ballgame — shirt-sleeve weather at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, and that afternoon it seemed as if everyone was going to the game.  Traffic was heavy, but steady and we left early enough to find an acceptable parking space.  Walking toward the complex we passed tail-gate parties by the score with revellers who were already enjoying themselves a little too much.  These people were obviously over-the-top fans.

Near the crow’s nest of the stadium we found our seats about 30 feet from what Ken called an “eyebrow.”  This was a concrete overhang all around the top of the facility and as it hung above us unsupported it did look like an eyebrow; a very large eyebrow.  Towering above the eyebrow a couple of light standards stood rather ominously to the right and left of us.  Looking down on the field we could see miniature people finishing preparations for the game.  Fortunately, we were prepared having brought two pair of field glasses.  I took out my camera with its telephoto lense, hung it around my neck and sat back in my seat.  Glancing at the time we had about 25 minutes to kill before the game started at 5:00 p.m.  We watched as a steady stream of enthusiasts continued to pour into the stadium wearing team hats and waving banners.

At the scheduled hour a cheerful resonating voice spoke into the loudspeaker welcoming all to this historic sporting event.  With hardly a few words out of his mouth the sound of what seemed to be a rumbling train drowned out the rest of what he said.  Bewildered, the fans looked around to see where the sound was coming from; recognition was almost instant.  The stadium began to tremble and the light standards shook and swayed so violently I was certain they would fall on us along  with the overhanging eyebrow.

While my whole life did not pass before me I was amazed at how many thoughts raced through my mind in just 17 seconds.  The first was fear — terror at what was happening.  I was certain we would be crushed under concrete and steel.  The second feeling was acceptance that we were all doomed, and the third feeling was a wonderful, peaceful calm.  I was going to die and it was all right.  The next thought was planning my last act of service to the world — at least to California — the Bay Area to be exact.  With my camera in tact I would snap photos of death and destruction until I either ran out of film or a slab of concrete took me out.  And then it was over; the quaking stopped.  An audible sigh reverberated through the air as probably every person in attendance let out their breath.  Later, as TV and radio commentators spoke of the fans they called it a “cheer.”  Wrong!  It was the sound of grateful relief.

As everyone was sucking in their next breath the same announcer who had welcomed us just seconds before came back on the air, and in the calmest, most controlled voice imaginable he said, “In case of an emergency, please exit in an orderly manner through……”  And then there was silence.  Electrical power was gone.

Many bolted from their seats and left, but the stalwarts had come to see a game having paid $100.00 and up for their tickets.  The earthquake was over, nothing seemed damaged.   Let’s play ball.

From our high-in-the sky vantage point we could see some billowing puffs of smoke throughout the city.  People in front of us had a portable radio and we asked,  “What do you hear?”  “Nothing,” was the reply.  Must be okay we decided as there were no announcements on the news.  But “nothing,” meant nothing.  The stations were dead.

Yet, we waited.   Were they going to play or not?  So we waited some more, as did most of the fans.  Finally, as the sun began to slip over the western hills of San Francisco an official came out with a bull horn and made the announcement, “The game is postponed.”  We were dismissed.

Those who had waited became instant friends talking about the earthquake, damage throughout the city and speculating about the future of candlestick.  Was it stable?  Were our homes okay?  How about our families?  What was the smoke we saw?  Are the bridges in tact?  How long would it take us to get home?  Would the game be played here?  It was all spectulation.  Some of the answers came through our new friend’s portable radio.  Within minutes after losing power, back-up generators at TV and radio stations kicked in and they were back on the air.  We were shocked that a section of the Bay Bridge was down, that the Marina was badly damaged and there were fires.  In Oakland a section of the Cypress Freeway had collapsed.  Rescue teams were on the way.

There was this amazing camaraderie among those remaining, but now it was time to go home.  I looked around as the crowd filed out of the stadium in the requested orderly manner.  Would we come back?  That day nothing was certain so before we left the top of the world I took some photos of the sun setting over candlestick, the light standards silhouetted against the fading orange and red sky.

Driving through darkened streets and across the San Mateo Bridge, usually a 45 minute drive from our home to the ball park, we arrived at our places of abode three hours later.  We were all concerned about family.  Stopping off at my parent’s home first we found my father sitting alone.  Our son, Keith, had stopped by right after the quake.  Finding his grandparents safe and well he returned home to his own family.  Mama had gone to bed.  The lights were back on and Dad related to us how the house had rocked so badly he thought it would fall off the foundation, but it had survived.  A few books were thrown from the shelves and a few dishes had tumbled from the cabinets.  Dad said, “And your mother — she was so frightened crying out again and again, ‘What will we do?  What will we do?’   and the lights went out.  Later, as we sat by candle light, she asked, ‘Why are we sitting in the dark?’  She had forgotten the whole thing.”   At our home we found the same slight damage.  All was well.

Two weeks passed before the stadium was pronounced “safe,” and we found ourselves sitting in the same seats at Candlestick watching our missed game of the World Series.  It was memorable — I suppose — but today I don’t even remember who won.  I do, however, recall with vivid accuracy the Loma Prieta Earthquake of October 17, 1989 which was, indeed and hopefully, “a once-in-a-lifetime event.”

Originally posted 2009-10-15 01:09:54.

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