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Where Were You for Loma Prieta?

Memories come rumbling back every October

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To old-timers in the San Francisco Bay area, every World Series brings back memories of the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. Those of you who lived through it remember the time and date—5:04 pm, October 17—like it was yesterday.

I was in Concord, a little east of the Bay area proper, with my wife in our house that we had just sold—it was still in escrow. In fact, the place was totally empty and we were scrubbing the floors for the last time. It felt pretty strange already.

Then the fruit trees in the back yard began to wave and dance, and the floor jolted and swung underfoot. The first thing I thought was "oh no, there goes escrow." (As it happened, the sale of the house went through without a hitch.) The shaking faded away, but if you've been through a quake you know that the ground feels like it's still moving for hours afterward.

After a few minutes I turned on the radio to listen to the World Series game, and things were in an uproar at Candlestick Park. The baseball announcers were reading bulletins, just like regular newscasters. They said the Bay Bridge was broken and that a freeway had collapsed. So my next thought was "oh no, all our stuff is in the new house in Oakland, on the other side of the Caldecott Tunnel."

So we set out on the 20-mile drive to Oakland. Police had blocked parts of the roadway. Chunks of concrete lay around the overpasses. The radio was full of terrible news—parts of San Francisco in flames, the great Bay Bridge broken, people trapped under a fallen freeway. But when we got home, almost nothing was amiss. The cats were huddled under the bed, of course.

Matt posted in the Geology Forum: "I was at home in eastern Sacramento County and I felt nothing, but, for some reason, had been watching ESPN and saw the earthquake on TV. I ran to see water sloshing out of our pool." Jennifer was in the same part of the state: "I was standing in a doorway of a temporary building in Davis, CA for the Loma Prieta quake. It was weird watching the mini-tsunamis in the pool across the street. It went on forever and ever." That sort of thing happens because the long-period earthquake waves travel farther than the rest of a quake's vibrations. And swimming pools will respond to them in that kind of seismic seiche, even when humans can't feel the movement.

Gwen, an About.com reader, was six years old at the time, but her memories are clear. "When I finally got back home I found my room a disaster," she wrote. "Things had fallen off of shelves, some glass from my window had broken, and my cat was under my bed (where she stayed for the next week). I decided then and there that when I was old enough I would get back to New York as fast as I could."

That night my wife and I kept the radio on. Several hours after the quake, the news station began to read a list of names—people who had been killed, most of them under the collapsed Cypress Freeway. Poor devils, they had just been in the wrong place. Finally the tears came.

That happened a lot during the next few weeks. Even a year later the emoptions were strong. One of my favorite establishments, Pacific Coast Brewing Company in downtown Oakland, had a gathering one year later. Oakland was in the World Series again. At 5:04 in the afternoon they poured a free round for everyone. The place was packed, and the TVs were broadcasting footage from the quake. It was as if no time had passed. We all looked at each other, clinked glasses, and made a solemn toast.

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