Tales From the Brink: An Oral History of the Loma Prieta Earthquake

Interviews by Adam L. Brinklow, Andrea Powell, and Kate Van Brocklin | October 17, 2014 | Lifestyle Story City Life

Editor's Note: This is one of many stories about earthquakes past and future that San Francisco is publishing over the coming weeks, all part of our October cover package, "Cracks in the Earth." To see the rest of the issue's contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.

“I’d only read about such things.”
Sandy Lydon, history professor
Here’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. I’m coming along this ridge in Nisene Marks State Park, where the earthquake originated, and I find what look like Christmas trees littering the forest floor—and I realized they were the tops of the redwoods. The force of the earth moving shook those 120-foot trees the way you’d crack a bullwhip and snapped all their tops clean off. I’d only read about such things. People used to say it couldn’t happen. The bridge collapse may be sexier, but out here, the manifestation of disaster was these treetops.

“An angel came down and squeezed my bladder.”
Lance Snead, professional magician
Around five o’clock, I walked out of a building over by Lake Merritt, and my bladder started saying, “Go to the bathroom.” I got into my car, and my bladder says, “No, really, go to the bathroom.” I try to say, “No, I’ll be all right,” but it insists: “Go. Now.” So I went to the bathroom, got back into my car, and I was about a block and a half away from the Cypress structure when the quake hit. I saw the buildings shaking and heard a sound like a train coming right at me, and I watched the ground roll up in a wave that picked my Ford Escort up and threw it over into the next lane. I’m sitting there watching people running out of the buildings, and then I hear something like horses galloping. That was the freeway collapsing: It turned into a pancake right in front of me. I realized: If I hadn’t used the bathroom, I’d be dead. I’d have been on the lower deck. To this day I believe that an angel came down and squeezed my bladder at the right moment. Thank God.

“I said, ‘No, this kid is coming out.'"
Tim Petersen and Andy Papp, firefighters
Petersen: It was five o’clock and there was no traffic, so I’m doing 65 in a government-issued pickup. You know what the weather is like in October around here: awesome. I was 24 years old. I got on the freeway, and suddenly I felt like I got four flat tires all at once. I saw that the same thing was happening to the people passing me. And then there was kind of a big explosion, which I later learned was the upper deck falling on us. It happened in a hundredth of a second. What was left of my truck was only 22 inches high. Because I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt like I normally did, I was smashed sideways across the bucket seat rather than getting my neck broken. It was just the luck of the draw, because everyone else in my section was killed. All those people I made eye contact with, none of them made it.

We had a four-man crew at the Cypress. CHP called down that there was one person alive and trapped. Me and Victor Cuevas, the hose man, went in. All I could see of the driver was his butt and one of his hands. The kid was conscious, and I got him talking and realized who he was. I knew his dad, who was also a firefighter, but I’d never met the kid before. My fire chief tells me, if he’s not going to make it, we have other rescues. I said, “No, this kid is coming out.”

At first I heard screaming, engines revving, horns blaring as people were smashed, and then all that faded. I had broken my back and both my ankles, and I had busted ribs stabbing into my collapsed lung. I expected any moment to just turn off, but it never happened. You start thinking about weird things. I had never been to New York City, and for some reason that crossed my mind. I remember thinking how my mom and dad had saved up for braces when I was a kid and how upset they’d be if I’d knocked my teeth out. I have no idea why that thought, of all things, was in my head. I could still tell the difference between day and night, and it was dark before the guys found me. Andy Papp and Vic Cuevas—you talk about heroes? These are the guys.

Some construction guys put some two-by-fours up to reinforce the freeway because the gap around us was shrinking. By the time we all got out that night, we had about 19 inches of space. Fire engines don’t carry a lot of rescue equipment. Some civilian truck driver had a generator and construction equipment, so we got a reciprocating saw and went to cut out the interior of the truck. It took three and a half hours. The kid thought his right leg had been cut off, but really the steering wheel was cutting off the blood supply. When it came time to cut the steering column, he had to guide the blade in for me. I said, “Tell me when—I don’t want to be cutting off body parts.”

We had no idea where the blade was going to go, but by that point we’d been at this for three hours, and I figured I was probably going to die anyway, so the hell with it. In the end we got lucky. He had to rebreak my ankles to get me out. They’d broken backward, and he had to bend them the other way so that I’d clear the pedals. This entire time, I never saw his face. I passed out as soon as they put me on the backboard. Later, in the hospital, I recognized him just by his accent. I worked with Andy for years after that, but we never really talk about that day, except to joke. He calls me the biggest mistake of his career. October 17: We say it’s my second birthday. I call Andy and the other guys every year. We never really talk about what happened, but it’s a tradition that will never die.

That kid’s never going to have a bad day for the rest of his life.

“Up in the air, we didn’t hear or feel anything.”
John Crayton, Goodyear Blimp Pilot
Ten seconds into the opening of the World Series broadcast, everything went black. I thought somebody had tripped over a cable. Then I saw a rock slide behind the stadium, transformers blowing up, fires starting, and smoke rising up from what we later learned was the freeway. We got a transmission from the S.F. and Oakland airports telling us they were closed. Up in the air, of course, we didn’t hear or feel anything.

“I thought maybe a jet was flying over.”
Terry Steinbach, Oakland A’s Catcher
I was not supposed to be catching that game. I was just sitting on the bench. We heard a really loud noise. I thought maybe a jet was flying over. But I was looking at the concrete overhang that goes around Candlestick, and you could see it move like you had cracked a whip. Sitting in the dugout, the guy next to me was from California, and he yelled, “Earthquake!” All of a sudden the ground shook, and we ran out on the field.

“We think you may need this.”
Frank Jordan, Chief of Police
When the quake hit, I was meeting with Fay Vincent, the baseball commissioner, talking about security. I was on the field, and my beeper started going crazy. I joined SFPD in 1957 and had a 5.3 quake hit that year as I was in a squad car going along Mission Street, but I knew this was different. I met Mayor [Art] Agnos over at the Emergency Operations Center on Turk Street, and the FBI landed a helicopter right in the park for us and said, “We think you may need this.” So up we went for an aerial survey.

“Mr. Mayor, we have to go.”
Art Agnos, Mayor
We were just pulling into the parking lot at Candlestick when I felt the tremors. We went into the ballpark. It had really felt the impact. Fans in the stands were milling around, and ballplayers were rushing into the stands. Shortly after we arrived, the police came to get me and said, “Mr. Mayor, we have to go. It’s a major earthquake. The Bay Bridge has fallen.” I remember being shocked that it was far more severe than I had thought. It was the first and only time I had a dozen motorcycles clearing the road from Candlestick to City Hall. They were literally ordering cars off the road so that I could get through.

“I saw the asphalt kick up in two-foot waves.”
Nancy Lang, San Francisco Zoo Curator
Most of our staff had gone home early to watch the game. It was just me, the great ape keeper, and our executive assistant. My grandmother had survived the 1906 quake and told me stories about it, so I knew when I saw the asphalt kick up in two-foot waves in front of the Primate Discovery Center—asphalt, mind you, coming at me in waves—that this was the Big One. But I wasn’t afraid. I had no idea what was going to happen, but I thought, “I’ll just wait this out and see.”

“I asked, ‘who’s in charge?’ and they said, ‘you are.’”
I got to the command post behind City Hall and asked for the disaster coordinator. I had never talked to any of them. I had never met them. They didn’t work near me. They said, “He’s not here, we just took him to the hospital.” I asked, “Who’s in charge?” And they said, “You are.”

“We all had jobs to do.”
Ed Lee, Deputy Director of Employee Relations
I was working for Mayor Agnos and still new to city work. I tried to call to see if my family was OK, but I couldn’t get through. Obviously, that’s the thing you care about the most, family, especially when you have young kids and you’re left wondering: Are they hurt, did the schools collapse, what about all my other family and friends? But we all had jobs to do, so I had to try to set that aside. It wasn’t until 9 or 10 at night that communications started working and I heard from home—the hours in between I had to spend helping set up the relief station at the Marina Middle School and prepping for all of the requests the Mayor’s Office was going to receive in the coming days. I ended up driving a couple of city attorneys home that night, getting to the East Bay the long way around on the Golden Gate Bridge.

“The Marina looked like a war zone.”
The first thing we looked at was the Embarcadero Freeway, which was the same double-decker construction as the one in Oakland. Cars were wall-to-wall, and people were all over it, and we were afraid of aftershocks, so I ordered everyone off of it. When you’re looking at the top part of a bridge lying on a bottom part, or a mile of freeway fallen down, and knowing that people are sandwiched under it—it was unreal. The Marina looked like a war zone: Three-story buildings now looked like two-story buildings, and some were so far off their foundations that they crushed cars parked on the street.

“At least I have both of my kids in my arms.”
Mara Williams, artist
I was home at 25th and Balboa. I had two toddlers, a two-year-old and a barely one-year-old. I had taken the day off from work because the World Series was on. I was changing the laundry from the washing machine to the dryer when it hit. I have felt many earthquakes living in San Francisco, so I just rolled my eyes and thought, “OK, here’s another earthquake.” But it kept going and going, and I thought, “Oh my god, this is the Big One!” And my kids started screaming. They were in the dining room, which was like a playroom for them. There was a little dresser that my two-year-old was standing right in front of. And as soon as I got to the room, the dresser started falling over. I grabbed him, picked up the other kid, and fell on this little single bed. And I just lay there, thinking, “At least I have both of my kids in my arms.” Everything was crashing down in the house. Things came out of the kitchen and onto the floor and broke, bookshelves fell over—it was rocking and rolling. The kids were hysterical. I really felt like the house was collapsing. I thought, “This one we’re not going to make it out of.” And I just kept thinking, “At least I’ve got my kids with me.”

“It was pitch-black except for the glow of the fires.”
We were broadcasting for ABC, but the affiliate didn’t have any backup power, so suddenly we were the only visual link for the city. The director told us to fly as far out and assess as much of the damage as we could before we got so far away that our microwave transmission link broke up, and we got almost to the Embarcadero, so close that I could see the collapsed section of the bridge with our high-powered lens. We transmitted to the stadium, which sent it up to the satellite and then out to the whole country. It was eerie: All of downtown San Francisco was pitch-black except for the glow of the fires.

“We decided that we would have to amputate the right leg. There was just no other way to free him.”
James Betts, surgeon at Children's Hospital Oakland
At the hospital we saw the Cypress Freeway collapse on the news and called rescue EMF. They said, “We think there are children trapped—can you get a group together?” It was six or so when we arrived. A panicked paramedic ran up and said, “You’ve got to get up there right away.” A vehicle had been pinned by a fallen piece of the upper deck, killing the adults in the front and trapping a six-year-old boy, Julio Berumen, in the back. His right leg was crushed to the knee and the left was pinned. We decided that we would have to amputate the right leg. There was just no other way to free him. We had a surgeon from Highland Hospital, an emergency department physician, a physician’s assistant, and about eight Oakland firefighters. The firefighters were working frantically to elevate the driver’s side seat and get the boy’s left leg out, but the body in the passenger seat—we thought it was the boy’s mother, but later we found out it was a family friend and that his mother had been driving—was in the way of the other, so there was no way I could get in there to do the amputation. We had to remove her. We tried to divide the body with a scalpel, but it didn’t work. So I asked the fire crew if they had a chainsaw.

“Maybe I should not attempt to be a fireman.”
Willie Brown, Speaker, California State Assembly
When the earthquake first hit, I was in downtown San Francisco at Wilkes Bashford on Sutter Street, briefly shopping before heading out to Candlestick Park. When the earthquake struck, I decided I had better check on my law office because I knew that my staff people were there. By the time I got there, my staff had already abandoned that place. By then, sirens were going off all over town, and I decided to follow the fire engines, which were all headed toward the Marina, to see if I could be of any assistance. It only took four or five minutes. I got out and walked to where the hoses were being pulled. Civilians were helping the fire people. I was on the sidewalk with a hose, and a fireman came over and said, “Get the hell out of here. This place may blow.” And sure enough, when I left and got about a block away, that exact portion of the sidewalk blew up. That fireman gave me good advice. It was also a signal that maybe I should not attempt to be a fireman.

“I don’t remember much about crossing the gap.”
Nick Krause, Acoustic Engineer
I was on a bus in the old Transbay Terminal going out to the East Bay when it hit. When it was over, the driver left the station anyway. I asked, “Are you sure it’s safe to cross the bridge?” He said, “It’s fine—if it was dangerous, they’d let us know,” not knowing the power was out. We got halfway through the Yerba Buena Island tunnel and hit a total logjam of people just walking back to San Francisco. I hopped out an emergency exit and walked as far as the western end of the tunnel, but I saw the smoke and the crowds and thought, “I don’t want to go that way. I’m heading east.” So I walked on out to where the break in the bridge was and saw that there was a clear path along the side and nothing stopping me from walking on it. There was nothing to hold on to, but the beam was about three feet wide and there was no wind at all. I was a field engineer for Bechtel, and I’d spent 10 years climbing on steel skeletons. I was worried about aftershocks, but it would only take 5 or 10 seconds... and boy, it seemed like an awful long way back into the city. I’ll be honest, I don’t remember much about crossing the gap: I just kept my eyes on the other side and told myself it was basically like crossing the street. Right after I got over, somebody somehow ended up on the upper deck and crashed across the gap, almost like they were trying to Evel Knievel their way across. They almost made it. I spent the rest of the day hitching rides to El Cerrito. I just really, really didn’t want to go back into that mess in the city that day.

“That passenger would have wanted us to do whatever it took to save the child.”
None of us had ever done something like this, obviously. It was a gruesome act, but necessary. People we knew and worked with later asked why we did it, and for a long time none of us talked about it. We believed that the passenger would have wanted us to save the child. It was very dangerous for the person operating—and I will not say who that person was—because the saw stalled several times. There were still aftershocks going on, and Highway Patrol was calling up trying to get us to come down. It was extraordinarily hot from these lights they’d brought in, and then they’d turn on these giant fans and the temperature would drop from 90 to about 60. We divided the body at mid-abdomen and then took the upper half away so that we’d have room for the operation on Julio.

“It was a lesson to my young sailors about people who are damaged and how to be helpful.”
Rear Admiral John Bitoff, stationed at Treasure Island
I was asked by the Red Cross to house almost 500 people aboard one of our ships for a week. They were all down at Moscone Center while the city tried to get back on its feet. We had brought three major ships into San Francisco. Agnos called me and said, “You may have gotten misinformation. These are not everyday people who were made homeless from the earthquake— these are homeless people who were living in SROs that were damaged, and they don’t have a place to live. If I were you, I’d be down there when they arrive.” I went to Pier 32, and a caravan of Muni buses came down and let them off, and oh my goodness, it was the walking wounded. It was the people you see living on the street. I was very unhappy because we were not prepared for that. We had to change our plans. We set up a table outside the ship and everybody had to be told: no knives, guns, drugs, or contraband. Before they all boarded, the contraband was falling off the table, all the medications and needles and everything. But they did it very happily. Everyone who came aboard, we asked if they would take a shower. So we provided them with a towel, soap, and shampoo and escorted them into showers. We laundered all their clothing. We took them down into the inside of the ship, and the Red Cross brought in cots. And then we took these people into the mess decks and fed them lunch. I brought the medical people to interview each and every one of them and look at their medications. On the Monday morning after, when Agnos would normally have his major staff meeting, he told them to go watch a humanitarian exercise in perfection. I was very proud of it, to be quite frank with you. It was a lesson to my young sailors about people who are damaged and how to be helpful. I had one man tell me it was the first proper bath he could remember. Another man said it was the first night’s sleep he didn’t have to worry about being molested. And nothing happened—they went to bed when the lights were out and got up in the morning with the crew.

"If he died I’d have let everyone down."
I crawled in on my abdomen, put a tourniquet on his leg, and applied some local anesthetic. The lights were burning the back of my neck. I had a few seconds’ hesitation: By now it was probably nine or ten o’clock, and he’d lost 50 percent of his blood volume. If he died I’d have let everyone down who had worked all this time. For weeks after, I had anxiety nightmares where I’d be back in that car and find I couldn’t do it. But in all it took only five, maybe ten minutes. I divided his leg at the knee and squeezed the artery shut with my fingers. You could feel everyone’s relief when we knew we were going to get him out. I still remember, hours later, his father coming into the ICU and recognizing him. Up to that point I don’t think we even knew his name. It was very gratifying and very sobering. Julio should be 31 years old by now, but I haven’t seen him in years. And that was the plan. We’ve respected their privacy.

“I’m trapped in a glass box, naked.”
Anonymous, Lusty Lady Stripper
I was 19 and working at the Lusty Lady, just off Broadway. The room was covered with mirrors so you couldn’t tell who was looking at you. I was onstage with four girls, and when the earthquake hit, the power went out and everything went black. I was in the box with everyone else. It was like a house of mirrors—there were only two booths where you could see both ways. The mirrors starting warping, rippling, and everything started shaking. I thought, “I’m trapped in a glass box, naked, and this box is going to crack.” I was raised Catholic, and I thought, “Of all the places to die, I’m going to die in this stupid come-smelling joint.” All this flashed before my eyes. I couldn’t escape. I was naked. The way the theater was built, it was at street level, but in order for us to get out, we had to go through the basement. I thought, “We’re going to be trapped in this basement, naked.” One of the girls was an opera singer. She was right next to me, and she started screaming. Next to the stage there was this velvet curtain, so I just grabbed the curtain, and I wrapped her and me in this curtain, and she was saying, “Hold me, hold me.” It seemed to last forever. And then it stopped, and we all realized how big it was. The manager had a flashlight. Then I was like, “Get me the fuck out of here.”

“There’s something wrong with this elevator!”
David Albert, Computer Consultant
I heard this story when I was working at Apple, in Cupertino. Some people were working on the fourth floor of the Apple building when the earthquake hit. Some of them rushed to the elevators, while other people did the right thing and went down the stairs. The people who were waiting for the elevator were standing there when the door opened, and this poor guy was standing there, white as a sheet. He said, “Don’t go in this elevator. There’s something wrong with this elevator!” He must have been rattled around like a rock in a can.

“They were all three sheets to the wind.”
Rear Admiral Bitoff
We had a request for help from a senior citizen home in San Francisco. When the earthquake struck, the cupboards opened and spewed flour and sugar and groceries on the floor. We sent a busload of young sailors out there. It turned out to be terrific—they cleaned it up, but they also provided human contact with these people who were kind of isolated. They were out there for the better part of a day. They did all kinds of things, they went grocery shopping. The seniors were so happy with them that they began giving them drinks. I was told that you could hear them when the bus returned to the Treasure Island gate because they were all three sheets to the wind.

“That was the end of my stripping career.”
When I went outside, I expected to see the Transamerica building toppled over. There were masses of people out in the street. No one wanted to be inside. There was no way to communicate with my family or anyone else. We just sat there and tried to figure out a plan. How were we going to get home? We sat there in shock listening to the radio. That was the end of my stripping career. I had been doing it for a year, making $25 an hour. After that I just couldn’t. I thought that it was a sign from God.

“Yeah, the baseball gods are on our side!”
The San Francisco fans were yelling and screaming, like, “Yeah, the baseball gods are on our side!” Everybody assumed that as soon as we got power on, the game would keep going. We didn’t know immediately about any of the damage. It wasn’t like anything was falling on the field. Ten or fifteen minutes later, we realized that we were probably not going to play this game. Then the field fence opened up, and police cars drove onto the warning track and announced the game was called off. They said, “The game’s been canceled. Please exit in an orderly manner.” The locker room was pitch-black. They had garbage bags and told us to grab our stuff and go. In the parking lot we had three buses for players and family members. Since the Bay Bridge was broken we went down toward 101, but the San Mateo Bridge hadn’t been inspected yet, so we had to go all the way to San Jose. It took us four hours to get back to Oakland.

“I spent the evening going from watering hole to watering hole.”
I went out to visit City Hall and other places that had allegedly been damaged. And as nightfall began to approach, it became clear that things were severely disrupted and people were going to be desperate for food and water. That prompted visits to some of my favorite places, like John’s Grill, the Stanford Court Hotel, and the Fairmont Hotel. I visited a number of places of that nature. I spent the evening going from watering hole to watering hole. I think I went home after midnight.

“The only ones who noticed were the spider monkeys.
I got calls from all over the world asking about the animals and how they’d reacted, but the truth is that I didn’t observe any strange behavior. None of them even really minded as it was happening—the penguins’ water all splashed out, but they were fine. The only ones who noticed were the spider monkeys, who were quite upset. Monkey Island had been a WPA project and was quite famous, and it was so badly damaged that we had to pull it down, which caused some outcry. But other than that, there was nothing unusual, though people always ask.

“It was like walking into the middle of a massacre.”
Rodney Fong, manager of the Wax Museum at Fisherman’s Wharf
I was at home. When I saw the water jumping straight up out of the fishbowl and falling right back in, like a Dr. Seuss illustration, I realized it was pretty bad. I went down to the Wax Museum. It was eerie. It’s creepy in there to begin with, but now it was like walking into the middle of a massacre, as if all the figures were people who had been gunned down, some doubled over and some leaning back and some fallen over completely. I was worried because the wax museum had been in our family for 26 years, and each of those figures costs about $50,000, and it looked as if everything had been ruined. But after a couple of days of inventory, we found that the only figures whose heads were destroyed were Ronald Reagan and Michael Jackson.

“The whole city was heroic.”
It was a very stressful and demanding time. But in many ways, it was one of the easier times I had in terms of leadership because of the extraordinary response of San Franciscans. They really showed the world and the rest of the country that they were made of the right stuff. There was no rioting, no looting, no abuse of other people. One neighbor helping another. People were looking for others to help. As diverse a city as we are, we showed we were made of the all-American right stuff in one of the worst crises of the last 90 years. Everyone cooperated, even the criminals—the crime rate actually went down for a few months.

“There was a lot of community spirit.”
Al Casciato, police lieutenant at Mission Station
I was a watch commander in charge of the shift. We organized patrols, checking areas to assess damage, traffic conditions, and if anybody was hurt. By 9 p.m., I had about 55 officers—some came in from home, so it was a larger than normal shift. We didn’t know for how many days the aftershocks would occur, so we put officers on 12-hour overlapping shifts. In a lot of the neighborhoods, people had candles or lanterns going because the power was out. So the officers were going to check with those people: “Are you okay? Where's your neighbor?” There was a lot of community spirit. It brought people together. To us it did not seem like crime was high. Every time the Bay Bridge is closed, crime goes down in San Francisco. A lot of people come from the East Bay, and there are a lot of problems. It’s noticeable. When BART shuts down, there’s even less crime.

“A normal day, it would have been much worse.”
We had squad cars going around with their lights on at all times just to remind people that there was a police presence still, but actually crime went down. The volunteerism was pretty amazing. We thought there would be hundreds dead, but we were lucky that so many had left work early to watch the World Series. A normal day it would have been much worse.

“Dan Quayle was present. He was conscious.”
Marian McDonald, registered nurse and Red Cross volunteer
I was the only person who knew the designated shelter for the Marina, the Marina Middle School. [Former mayor] Dianne Feinstein showed up wearing a Levi’s jacket and asked, “What do you need?” I said water, and by the next day we had two classrooms filled with water jugs. We had only six volunteers at the shelter, and I was the only nurse. About 300 people came through. I caught a couple hours of sleep and wound up doing a photo op with [Vice President] Dan Quayle, going around looking at collapsed houses in the Marina, surrounded by news cameras. I took a lot of ribbing for that. As for Quayle, here’s what I observed: He was present. He was walking. He was conscious. I did not see evidence of a scintillating intellect.

“Out here in Watsonville, we know ’89 was ours.”
When the park opened again, somebody put up a sign at the spot he guessed the epicenter was, long before USGS assessed it, and it began to draw all these people who had never been off the pavement in their lives, guys in shorts and women in cocktail dresses and high heels. They all wanted to look down the barrel of the gun. The force of publicity calls this the San Francisco earthquake, but out here in Salinas, Los Banos, Watsonville, Santa Cruz, we know ’89 was ours.

“I was really taken to a place of darkness.”
It’s funny how you forget some of those powerful emotions. I vividly remember my emotions at the time. I was really taken to a place of darkness. But then you forget about it. It’s like giving birth: You go through the labor pains and say, “I’ll never do that again,” and then a couple of years later you do it all again. San Francisco’s always resilient—it moves forward.

Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco

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