1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake


Here is an account of some of the things that happened on October 17th. Until now, I never did write any of them down.

I think everyone remembers exactly what they were doing when it hit. I was standing at my coworker Mark's desk. It was about 5 pm -- an hour and a half before we normally go home. We heard the roar in the distance, which coincidentally, sounds like the pallet turntable downstairs. We did nothing.

The building began to shudder. We did nothing. I had been through many earthquakes, before, and generally, nothing much happened.

About 5 seconds later, we realized that the shaking was getting violent. I was thrown into the office partition, and saw tiles starting to fall from the ceiling.

In that expanded moment, I considered whether I should duck under my desk. Our desks don't have legs; they hook onto the partitions. Before the quake, many people said it would be more dangerous to be under one of these desks, which could shake off the hooks, bringing hundreds of pounds of equipment down on a person. In the face of reality, though, with all manners of things falling, it became clear that the safest place was under the desk. I supported the desk from below with my hands, just in case it came off the wall hooks.

From under my desk, it felt as if the building were coming down. The shaking was as violent as any roller coaster. Fluorescent lights exploded, and it got dark, but the shaking continued. I heard the clock just outside my cubicle fall from its ceiling support and explode on the floor.

Gradually, the shaking subsided, and then, it was deadly quiet. The ventilation system had stopped. We were on emergency lighting only. "F---, man," was my summary of the entire event. We all waited in the dark for aftershocks to stop.

An emergency warning voice is supposed to come over the PA to tell us to evacuate. There was no such warning. The PA system had been destroyed. "Get OUT!" shouted Dirk.

I stood up and looked at the mess on my desk. I could have dug under the debris to find my keys and jacket, but of all things, the words of Jesus regarding his second coming came to mind (around Luke 17, I think). He said that when the day comes, don't bother going back into your house to get your possessions, or going back in from the field to get your cloak. I decided that it would be better to save a few seconds in getting out of the building, even though it might be a great inconvenience later.

There was no panic. The building was dark, and there were clouds of dust from the fiberglass tiles, but people filed out in an orderly fashion.

Outside in the parking lot, my manager Anil (not Anil Wadhwani, whom you met) remarked, "For sure, some people died in this one."

"I knew it was going to happen," claimed Mary, a young coworker, "This morning I put food and extra clothing into my car. I knew it was going to be today."

Mary looks something like Ellen Yastrow (Krulewich when Reuben met her) - petite and cute, although not as full-figured as Ellen. Mary didn't want to be alone that night, and was asking lots of people if they wanted to stay over at her place. No one accepted. Everybody had to look after their own affairs.

Everyone gathered outside the recreation center at HP, where there is a phone. There were long lines for the phone. In the spirit of good citizenship, I decided not to use the phone for a while. People with WalkMans repeated the news highlights to those gathered around.

Well, I had escaped with my life, but then began to think of conveniences. My jacket was inside, and it was cold and windy. My keys were inside, and I wouldn't be able to unlock my bike without them. A friend offered me a ride home, but I decided to wait to see if we would be allowed to re-enter the building.

After about an hour, the emergency response team started escorting people back in, to get keys only. We were told to go straight to our desk, grab the keys, and go straight out. The building was unsafe.

Upon entering, I saw that the damage to the building was more extensive than I had imagined. Big, 2-foot squirrel-cage ventilator fans had fallen from the ceiling. Someone would surely have been killed if one of those fell on them. There was very little linoleum to walk on. Most of the floor was covered with fiberglass ceiling tiles and other debris. Glass was strewn on every open surface.

When the earthquake hit, Merrianne was in a local department store, Emporium. She was in the jewelry section, and was terrified watching all the glass cases shatter in front of her. The saleswoman behind the counter kept shouting, "Don't panic! Don't panic!" -- panicking more than the customers.

I biked home, to find Merrianne already sorting things out. There was lots of glass gravel on the kitchen surfaces. Our tumblers had lived up to their name and tumbled out of the cabinets. Nothing much else had been broken. A bookcase had fallen over, dumping 5 shelves of books into the TV room, but nothing was hurt.

We checked on our neighbors, who were both senior citizens, to be sure that they were okay.

That night, Merrianne and I stayed over at her dad's place. Her father had to stay at work, but Cindy was home. Together, we watched the TV reports come in until the early hours of the morning. Small aftershocks continued to waver through all night.

My plant was so heavily damaged that they told us not to come in for work until the next Monday. I took advantage of the time to clean the house and garage, and talk with my neighbors. We still had electricity and water in the house, so things were pretty normal.

Merrianne's manager told everyone at their workplace to come in to work, which got Merrianne very angry -- especially in light of the fact that the man didn't even come in, himself.

Unfortunately, our house had been fumigated for termites the day just before the quake. I refilled our bottled water supply (poisoned by the fumigation), in case another quake disrupted the water mains.

The other thing that they do for fumigation is shut off the gas. This might seem like quite a stroke of luck, considering the earthquake, but in fact, it was just the opposite. Pacific Gas and Electric was busy the next week just repairing major damage. I couldn't even get past a busy signal at their office for a week. It was ten days before we had our gas restored. In the meantime, we ate cold food, or ate out. I took cold showers, while Merrianne decided to shower elsewhere.

Highway 17, the major thoroughfare to the coast from here, was blocked by a mudslide. It wasn't completely cleared until recently. The Bay bridge collapsed, of course. Neither of these affected us much, since we live so close to work, and bike a lot, anyway.

As of today, they still haven't replaced the ceiling tiles at my workplace. I can see straight through to the roof, and can also see that the clocks and lights are only suspended by wires. Other than that, I'd say things are back to normal in Sunnyvale.

27-NOV-1989; Roderick.