Visitors from around the world flock to San Francisco and often find the city too cold. Residents laugh at that. The tourists come at the height of summer. Yet San Francisco seems warmest in the autumn. That October day was no different; perfect weather for game three of the World Series. The Series was entirely a Bay area event that year with San Francisco’s Giants playing their rivals, the Oakland Athletics. The A’s had won the first two games, but game three was being played in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park and the Giants were hoping for a home-team advantage.
I was sitting at my desk in my bookstore when the computer screen flickered briefly. I tried to hit the two keys on the keyboard that would save my document, but the keyboard wouldn’t hold still long enough. The screen went dark and the lights inside the bookstore went out.
A roar drowned out the sound of the rush-hour traffic. At four minutes past five the afternoon traffic was always heavy, but this wasn’t traffic; it was the city itself—the entire city—groaning as it was lurched from side to side. Waves moved under my feet, I was surfing on land. The waves clearly came from the south hitting the front of the shop and flowing through it. Books on the shelves lurched first toward me, sprang back and then jerked in the opposite direction.
How many more minutes would go by before it would stop? What seemed so endless at the time was just 15 seconds in duration.
The earthquake struck at 5:04 pm on October 17, 1989. It was a time I will never forget, in a place I will never forget.
“How big was it?” I asked myself. It was a game San Franciscans played. The ground would shake and we’d try to guess the quake’s magnitude. This time I knew it was bigger than normal. Without electricity I couldn’t turn on the radio and the television was useless. I grabbed the phone. It was still working. I tried to dial some local numbers but every line seemed busy. I called a friend in San Diego. That call went through since the long distance lines were still unclogged.
At my urging he turned on his television. I rattled off to him what had happened. Just then there was a breaking report on his local television channel. They said that a major earthquake believed to be of a magnitude of 7.2 hit San Francisco, which was far stronger than it felt. But, what I felt was muted by the fact that the bookstore was in a grand old building that survived the 1906 quake because the foundation sat on solid granite.
“The bridge is down,” my friend gasped to me.
“Which one?” I demanded. I thought first of the Golden Gate Bridge, that famed icon of the city. The image of its mighty spans falling into the churning waters of the Golden Gate was too much to contemplate. “The Bay Bridge,” he answered. “The top deck of the bridge collapsed in one section falling onto the lower section.”
It got worse. The Cypress Expressway in Oakland was another double-decker. The top deck of a massive section had collapsed onto the lower level, crushing the rush hour traffic beneath it. My friend then told me that the city’s Marina District was in ruins and fires were claiming homes there. It was one slap in the face after another.
I took a piece of paper and wrote “7.2” on it—authorities later they revised the figure down to 7.1—and taped the paper on the front window. I looked down Market Street toward downtown, a stream of people was walking toward me. The city had decided that electricity was more environmentally correct. The buses, trolleys and subways were all electric, but now there was none—the entire mass transit system had come to standstill. Empty buses blocked traffic throughout the city. They couldn’t be moved easily without power.
Thousands were trapped below the ground in subway tunnels dark as midnight on a moonless night. Transit workers would slowly free them and led them with flashlights through the dangerous tunnels to the closest station where they would climb the stairs into the light.
The city was quiet. People walked silently. One after another, seeing I was still in the shop, came in. “Can I borrow your phone,” they’d ask, their faces troubled. “I’ll pay,” they offered.
“It’s not necessary,” I’d say as I handed them the phone.
Some got through, others didn’t. Those who did said the same things. “Are you all right?” they’d ask the voice on the other end. “I’m fine,” they said. “I’m on my way home. I have to walk,” they’d explain. I’d hand the phone to the next person, and then the next, and then the next.
Eventually I locked the door and headed home myself. As I did, one of the few gasoline buses still in service pulled up. It was packed with people but a few squeezed off at the stop. The bottom step entering the bus only had one person on it. There was room for one more—barely. I stepped up and held on. As the bus pulled off toward the Castro District I looked over my shoulder toward the Marina. A dark plume of smoke rose toward the sky, like a giant, unmoving tornado. There was no breeze to disperse it. I knew what it meant.
In the Castro the spirit of San Francisco lived. People packed out the restaurants and bars trying to celebrate life. The police, ever anxious to hassle the Castro, showed up and closed them down. As I entered our building a woman, who worked in the office below our flat, was coming out. “Thank God, you’re here,” she said. “He’s really shaken up and needs you.”
Frank was sitting in our doorway on the second floor, his back to the stairs that led up to our third floor flat. The wave didn’t hit our flat straight on but instead shook the building from side to side. Everything on the walls came crashing down, the framed Fountainhead movie posters that had filled the large stairway leading up to the center of the flat were scattered on the stairs. Upstairs everything crashed down and broken glass was everywhere.
It was getting dark but there was no electricity. We lit candles and talked as we cleaned up the glass and took inventory of the antique glassware that lay in ruins. I pulled out a couple of battery-operated televisions. We kept one in the kitchen and one in my office but had no batteries. The candles were almost depleted as well.
Frank decided to walk to the Walgreens, which was open 24 hours a day and sold a bit of everything. He was only gone a short while and then was back with batteries and candles and a story to tell me.
“They were free,” he exclaimed. I didn’t first comprehend what he was saying. He explained that a line was outside the store. One by one, as a person got to the front of the line, the staff would ask them what they needed. They’d take flashlights and go in search of it because the shop was too big and dark for customers to safely shop on their own. The shop was given away items like candles and batteries, a gesture that astounded me.
But, over the next few days, I learned this was not the exception, but the rule.
Traffic lights throughout the city were dead. Winos, bums, derelicts and panhandlers, took it upon themselves to direct traffic. Sergeant Diane Langdon, who was stationed at the nearby Presidio military base, recounted: “At the traffic lights nobody was hogging, people weren’t panicking, people were actually doing four way stops, and yielding to each other.” Another Presidio officer said: “Traffic lights were out all over the city but there were civilians on the road that took it upon themselves to go out and help direct traffic. I was amazed at the fact that people really pulled together and took charge.” Langdon’s husband agreed: “Everyone was courteous, we didn’t believe how courteous the drivers were, you needed to experience it. Civilians were out directing traffic at their own liberty. There were a few negative things but everyone was real co-operative.”
North Beach, a trendy area near the downtown, is filled with restaurants. Those with gas stoves could cook, but refrigeration was out. An association of restaurant owners got together and decided to close their businesses. Their food couldn’t last without refrigeration, so they took gas-operated equipment to public parks, cooked everything they had, and gave it away to anyone who was hungry. That night some parks were filled with people fed by the best chefs in a city renowned for its restaurants, for free.
This spontaneous outpouring of generosity started the moment the quake hit. I had seen some of it on the bus ride down Market Street and didn’t even think about it at the time. Numerous shuttle buses run between the city and the airport. They are private services and forbidden by law to do anything but shuttle passengers between the airport and their home or hotel in the city.
Instead, these shuttle buses were operated for hours up and down the main streets of the city. They’d stop at a bus stop, pick up a load of people, and carry them down the bus line, dropping them off as needed and then return for another load. The shuttle drivers didn’t think of going home nor did they charge for their service. Hundreds of people got home that day because the drivers had decided to ignore the law.
The dark plume that rose from the Marina was another story. This area of the city was as a major government project built on landfill. But landfills and earthquakes are deadly combinations; when the earth shakes, landfill liquefies and buildings collapse. The city sold the land off for housing. That day, as it did during the 1906 quake, the fire hydrant system in the Marina failed. On both occasions civilians formed bucket brigades handing one bucket filled with water after another down a long line.
Throughout the Marina, buildings collapsed—many trapping occupants inside them. Reports from the city Fire Department, in an unusual admission, acknowledged the role of private citizens. When the crew of Truck #16 arrived in the Marina, they sent three fire fighters and an unspecified number of “citizen volunteers” into 3701 Divisadero Street “to begin search and rescue operations.” The report by the fire department stated: “There were many citizen volunteers and they, in fact, were the first on the scene and had heard voices calling for help. Captain Jabs, with citizen volunteers, attempted to reach victims through the exterior sidewall of the building, but the attempt was proving difficult when Fire Fighter Bailon inside the structure called out, “I found them!” Captain Jabs, with four or five citizen volunteers, entered the building.”
At Beach Street and Divisadero, fire crews attempted to fight numerous blazes but everywhere were hindered by a lack of water pressure. Engine #41 was forced to move by the heat of the fire and “citizen volunteers” manned their supply line. Engine #16 “with the aid of citizen volunteers” dragged supply lines to Engine #41. The report also noted: “Fire fighters and citizen volunteers fought the fire and attempted to keep it from spreading.”
At 2090 Beach a woman was trapped beneath the rubble of the burning building. Fire fighters were driven by heat from the building. The flames were brought under control by a 1 1/2 inch hose from Engine #41. Hose connectors were leaking and “a bucket brigade composed of citizen volunteers” used the leaking water to fill buckets to manually fight the fires themselves.
In other areas of the city the fire fighters found, upon arrival at a fire, that the people of the neighborhood themselves had dragged out garden hoses and were dousing the flames. At Fifth and Bluxome a four-story building collapsed. The falling debris killed five people below and trapped many others inside. The City Museum reported: “Responding Fire Department companies, with the help of police officers and many brave citizen volunteers, used pry bars and power cutting tools, as well as bare hands to free victims trapped in crushed automobile, in the hope that survivors might be found.”
Nowhere was the contrast between private volunteers and official responses more visible than in Oakland, where the Cypress Expressway had collapsed. It seems that the government-built two-tier highway was not engineered to stand the pressure of a major earthquake. In addition parts of the highway were built, again, on landfill that liquefied. A report from the San Francisco City Museum describes what was visible to the television crews that reported on the disaster:
"Citizens who lived in a nearby housing project ran to the wrecked freeway moments after the earthquake. Dozens of extraordinarily brave citizens climbed shattered support columns and—holding onto curled steel reinforcement rods that had been bent and exposed by the fearsome collapse—made their way along the top deck.Dust and smoke rose straight up into the warm afternoon air.These brave people covered their faces with handkerchiefs and rags for protection from cement dust and the acrid smoke of many burning automobiles, and went from car to car to search for survivors. Strong earthquake aftershocks rocked the teetering, insecure freeway. One of these citizen rescuers yelled, "I need something to pry the door open! He's alive...alive...he heard me!" as the first Oakland fire fighters arrived."
The first fire fighters to arrive, like their compatriots in San Francisco, had no choice but to rely upon civilians to help them. Private individuals carried out all the rescues that took place within the first few minutes. The city didn’t even know of the collapse until six minutes after it happened. And then, for several hours, civilians outnumbered the city fire fighters. Firefighter Charles Gerow led an all-civilian team that raised ladders to rescue survivors, who crawled out from between the two layers of roadway.
Fire fighter Lt. Mark Hoffman and Fire Fighter Ken Costa formed a team with two off-duty Marines and another civilian. “This combined Fire Department-volunteer crew crawled along the sandwiched lower deck peering between the decks for more trapped victims...”
At the Cypress disaster civilians rigged makeshift ladders to reach the upper levels and rescue trapped people. Victims were led to safety by the residents of a nearby housing project. When “officials” arrived to take charge, the first thing they did was ban all private help. The civilians then snuck around to the other side of the highway and surreptitiously conducted more rescue operations in the face of orders to the contrary. Even privately-owned sniffer dogs were grounded by the bureaucrats.
Once the rescue operation was fully in the hands of the “professionals” it ground to a complete halt as bureaucrats made a decision on whether it was “safe” to rescue people. They eventually sanctioned cautious rescue efforts but after a couple of days announced that they were satisfied that no more live victims could be rescued and halted all efforts. They were wrong. Several days later a man was found, still clinging to life, inside his crushed car. The dehydration he suffered was severe and, in spite of the best efforts by the local hospital, he died. Chances are he would have lived had the rescue efforts not been halted prematurely.
Even outside the Bay area people did what they could. In Los Angeles Mark Smith had entered a radio contest at KIIS-FM. He was surprised to learn he won a new car. His response was to tell the station to give the car to the Red Cross for earthquake relief. Disk jockey Rick Dees and the station announced they’d match Smith’s gift and, for good measure, give him another car anyway.
The car was the tip of the iceberg. GAP stores gave $100,000 to help people. IBM tossed in $200,000. CitiBank gave $150,000 to help the Red Cross with its work in the city. Ford wrote out a cheque for $500,000, so did General Motors. Chrysler gave $100,000. Great Western Bank gave $100,000. Employees at McDonnell Douglas contributed $100,000, while Nissan gave $300,000, a sum matched by Proctor and Gamble. One city-based law firm donated $150,000. Sony wrote out a cheque for $1 million. A Congressman from Wisconsin was not nearly as beneficent. He complained that the median home price in San Francisco was $350,000 and the residents didn’t need help because they were affluent and wasteful.
When Republican Vice President Dan Quayle visited the city to inspect the damage Mayor Art Agnos, a Democrat, accused him of grandstanding. While private citizens were helping one another the politicians were trying to out-whine each other.
The earthquake of 1989 is not one I’ll forget easily. I witnessed the fires, the collapsed buildings, and the disastrous effects of prior government decisions. I also witnessed the outpouring of humanity from everyday people. I saw it in drug store employees who stayed in a darkened shop to help pass out free candles and batteries to their neighbours. I saw it in the effort of derelicts and winos who pulled themselves together to direct traffic on the downtown streets. I saw it in the efforts of the residents of a housing project who climbed up to, and then into, the crushed layers of the Cypress Expressway to pull out trapped individuals. It could be seen in civilians who climbed through the rubble of collapsed buildings and in the determination of those who fought fires with buckets of water carried by hand.
Not since 1906 had San Francisco experienced such a disaster. And not since 1906 had it witnessed the absolute power of individual initiative in the face of destruction.