Memories of the Loma Prieta Earthquake on the 30th Anniversary

It was with palpable excitement that I was looking forward to seeing my first World Series game in person. The fact that it was MY San Francisco Giants playing my second favorite team, the Oakland Athletics, boosted my excitement level totally off the charts. It felt like I was 18 again and about to take the field! I was psyched! 

The fall weather was spectacular! My wife, brother and a few friends enjoyed the warm weather at a picnic lunch at a nearby park.  When we arrived at the ballpark it was in the low 80’s with no wind, Candlestick Park actually felt balmy without the frigid gales it was infamous for. 

I had been in love with baseball and the Giants since, at the age of six, I had witnessed my first big league game in 1958 at Seals Stadium, the first year the Giants played in San Francisco.  In 1989 it had been 31 years since my child’s eyes beheld the incomparable Willie Mays glide around center field like Rudolf Nureyev to track down impossibly high, to me anyway, fly balls with his signature basket catch. It was love at first sight! Since that first taste of our great National Pastime I had been to thousands of Giants games along with hundreds of A’s games. 

Now it was a mere minutes before my beloved Giants would host the powerful A’s at The Stick. My beautiful wife, Liz, was sitting in the left field upper deck with my baby brother, John Henry, and a few friends. I was in was also in the upper deck in Section 5 between home plate and first.

I was standing up holding the box seat railing chatting with my fellow ticket partners. ESPN’s Chris Berman and former player/manager Joe Torre passed close by me on their way to the temporary press box the Giants had set up in the upper deck behind home plate. I said “Hi” to Berman and Torre as they passed by – when IT happened! Berman and Torre stopped abruptly!

The IT I’m referring to was the Loma Prieta 6.9 magnitude earthquake on the infamous San Andreas fault!  The San Andreas had ruptured under the Santa Cruz mountains 60 miles south of The Stick a few seconds before we felt the sickening shaking. 

Perhaps, because I was standing up holding the rail and kind of rolled with the motion, it didn’t feel that bad to me. But then I saw the scared looks on my seatmates faces and it took on a whole new higher level of urgency. One of my buddies looked upwards and my eyes followed his upward. What I saw really shook me up! 

The light tower over our heads was swaying wildly like it could come crashing down on us! Then the scene became surreal in a horrific way, there was a poor dude on top of the light tower hanging on for dear life! For a second I thought he would fall to his death before my eyes. In an instant my mind shot to an eerily similar horrific scene eight years before. I’d witnessed the Las Vegas MGM fire in 1980 and had seen a man on a high floor  trying to escape the building using a makeshift rope of bedding, the “rope” broke and he fell to his death. 

The earthquake lasted about 15 seconds. But, it felt like an eternity. When it ended a solemn silence fell over the ballpark. Then a few seconds later a lone guy let out a loud whoop! Taking their cue from that lone whoop the crowd roared to life with shouts of “welcome to San Francisco” or “yeah baby!” I took it as a nervous reaction by mostly men that we’d all survived a perilous situation. At that moment I think it was unanimous that the game would take place. The power didn’t go out immediately so “let’s play ball!” 

However, within a minute or so I thought if the earthquake was centered hundreds of miles away there was certainly serious damage, deaths and injuries. That sober thought snapped me out of my euphoria over seeing my first World Series game. The power failed and it began to dawn on me that my dream of seeing my first World Series game had turned into a human nightmare!

Soon Lizzy, my brother and our friends rushed over from the left field upper deck. Remember there were no mobile phones in 1989. Lizzy showed me the tiny Sony black & white portable TV we had brought to the game. Lizzy said with horror, “The Bay Bridge collapsed!” Sure enough, I looked at the upper section of the bridge that had collapsed onto the lower deck. “I think we ought to leave.”, Lizzy said. 

Still there was hope that the game would be played if the power came back on. Those irrational hopes were dashed by two things. First, our tiny TV now showed the first horrifying scene of the collapsed Cypress section of the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland! In a few minutes a San Francisco police cruiser rolled onto the turf with a loudspeaker telling fans the game was postponed and to exit the park in an orderly manner. The exit by the crowd was quiet and very orderly.  Everybody was in shock as the reality of the catastrophe finally sunk in. There was no more shouts or whoops of false bravado!

While exiting the reality hit home to me. My World Series dream had turned into real life! It wasn’t about baseball now – it was about real life and it was a tragedy! I watched glumly as some of the players walked off the field comforting their wives and families. 

The drive home was long and eye-opening. When we passed the airport a water tank on the roof of a hotel had swung down gashing a hole in some upper floors. The San Mateo Bridge, our normal route home to Pleasanton, was closed for damage inspection and 101 was at a dead stop. Our friend Bruce was driving and diverted for 280 south to get to the Dumbarton Bridge which remained open. The raised portion of the Dumbarton had been completely rebuilt 5 years before. 

When we reached the Fremont side of the bridge another surprising sight greeted us. The top of one of the tall KGO radio transmitter towers had toppled over.

Our three hour trek home finally ended. The power was on in Pleasanton. We wondered what damage our house had sustained. As I opened the front door we looked around with trepidation.  Surprisingly, the only casualty was our grandfather clock lay on the floor and a few items had fallen off shelves. Once upright the grandfather clock was good as new. 

It was very depressing to watch how much suffering had been inflicted on the Bay Area when we watched the news that night.  The worst damage was the catastrophic collapse of the upper deck of the Cypress viaduct section of the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland. Of the 63 fatalities caused by the earthquake 42 was the result of the collapse of the Cypress. It was heartbreaking to watch the terrible suffering of those persons trapped in their cars under tons of concrete.  Mercifully, many never realized what hit them, it was instantaneous death. 

Ten days later, after Candlestick Park was deemed safe by engineers, the 1989 World Series resumed. Given the human tragedy that the earthquake had caused, it just wasn’t the same. The crowd bravely sung the old standard song, “San Francisco.”  However, to me it felt more like a wake than a reason to get excited. The game certainly didn’t improve my melancholy mood when the A’s whipped my Giants 13-7! The next night the Athletics finished off the inevitable the sweep of my Giants with a 9-6 victory.  The World Series that once held so much excitement and anticipation for me was over. We briefly paused to watch the A’s on field celebration. As we shuffled dejectedly out of The Stick I felt overwhelmingly numb. It was a time of my life that I certainly will never forget! 

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – OCTOBER 28: The Oakland Athletics celebrate after winning the 1989 World Series by defeating the San Francisco Giants 9-6 in Game Four on October 28, 1989 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California. The Athletics swept the Giants 4-0. (Photo by MLB Photos via Getty Images)

 

Here’s a compilation of the damage the Bay Area suffered that day:

 

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