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Remembering the Quake of '89

No one who experienced the 1989 earthquake in Northern California will never forget where they were or what they were doing in the early evening hours of October 17. Though the 6.9 temblor was not nearly as powerful as the Great Earthquake of 1906 (estimated to have been a Richter magnitude 7.8), the Loma Prieta quake will always been the ‘Big One’ of our time.

To refresh your memory: shortly after 5 p.m. on October 17, the San Andreas fault slipped in an area 10 miles northeast of Santa Cruz. The actual epicenter was in Forest of Nisene Marks State Park, but the quake soon took on the name of nearby Loma Prieta Peak. The main tremor lasted for 10-15 seconds and, according to varying reports, was felt as far away as San Diego to the south, Southern Oregon to the north, and Western Nevada. When the final numbers were tallied, 63 people had been killed, more than 3,700 injured, and upwards of 10,000 left homeless. Some 12,000 homes and 2,600 businesses were damaged or destroyed. Forty buildings collapsed outright. Most of the fatalities occurred when the top deck of the double-decker Nimitz Freeway in the East Bay collapsed onto the bottom deck, crushing scores of cars. The most concentrated damage occurred in the Marina District of San Francisco, where we all learned about a thing called ‘liquefaction’, in which landfill over marshy areas amplifies the shaking — and the destruction. The quake caused an estimated $6 billion ($10 billion in today’s dollars) in property damage, becoming one of the most expensive natural disasters in U.S. history at the time.

Although we ‘covered’ the boating aspect of the quake in our November issue that year, the reality is that, back then, and for months to come, sailing didn’t matter. All that mattered was making sure loved ones were okay, you had someplace warm and dry to sleep, and that you could put your life back together.

But that was then. On this, the 20th anniversary of Loma Prieta, we asked readers (via ‘Lectronic Latitude) to remember where they were and what happened that day — but only if it related to boating. The stories we got were so great we wonder why we didn’t ask the same thing years ago. Here are a few of the best ones:

• Dave Cohan: On October 17, 1989, my wife, Sharon Jacobs, and I completed a two-year, 21,000-mile circumnavigation of the Pacific on our Southern Cross 35 Synergy. And then there was a big earthquake. The climax of our trip became anti-climatic — there were suddenly more important things to worry about.

The last leg of our trip was a fast four-day sail down the coast from Port Angeles to the Bay. Having run most of the way in 25- to 30-knot winds, early on the morning of October 17 we were becalmed off Pt. Reyes. So we motored on to the Golden Gate, where we crossed our outbound track, thereby “closing the circle.” We were met by my parents and several sets of friends, each on their own boats, who proceeded to escort us down the Bay, passing under the Bay Bridge around noon. Arriving in our home marina at Coyote Point, we spent a couple of hours greeting friends and relaxing on the boat.

Just before 5 p.m. we headed home down Highway 101 in my parents’ car. About five minutes into this trip, we experienced the Loma Prieta earthquake. Ironically, the motion of the earthquake while driving on a freeway was something like being on a small boat at sea. We arrived safely at my parents home in Palo Alto, and found surprisingly little damage, but no power. Three days later, with the power still out, we discussed moving back aboard the boats, where we could be self-sufficient. It was actually during this discussion when the power finally came back on.

Once the initial shock was over, our first only-partly tongue-in-cheek reaction was that the earthquake and its timing was a message from God: We should turn around and head back to sea! That, it turned out, would take a few more years. The other result of the convergence of our arrival and the quake was that everyone was somewhat less interested in our trip than might otherwise have been the case, at least for the first couple of weeks we were home. Every year since, we’ve remembered two significant events on October 17.

• Jeff Coult: A few hours after experiencing a wild ride at work in Berkeley, I made my way down to the Berkeley Marina, as did several of my boat neighbors. Everyone seemed to be stunned into silence, but when we heard that the Bay Bridge might have been damaged, we decided to run out for a look in my boat. As we departed the marina, we could see that indeed there was a section that seemed to have fallen. As we made our way toward the bridge, we could hear huge amounts of emergency traffic on my scanner, including many calls for medical assistance on the bridge itself. Just as we arrived, a helicopter landed on the top deck carrying a couple EMTs. The sight of the bus hanging over the edge of the top deck was surreal.

About five minutes later, a fog appeared from the south. We wondered what might have caused the fog to form from that unusual direction. When it enveloped the boat, I started the radar, and turned on the lights. We were in zero visibility, but the ‘fog’ didn’t look like fog, and it had a very strange odor. After about 10 minutes, we came to the conclusion we were in a cloud of cement dust. It soon passed, and it wasn’t until the following day that I figured out it was from the Cypress Freeway collapse.

Meanwhile, as darkness descended, we could see fires raging in San Francisco. Few words were spoken as we took it all in. As we turned around to head back to Berkeley, the only lights were from the fires in San Francisco. But as we headed for the break in the middle of the Berkeley Pier, suddenly the lights in the East Bay began coming back on. They started in the south, and came on in blocks that looked to be a mile or so long, rather like sequenced Christmas lights. Within a minute or so, the entire East Bay was lit up.

As we entered the breakwater, we saw a large sailboat with about 30 people aboard grounded at the entrance. We came alongside, and the owner told us he had been part of a flotilla of boats formed to take people from San Francisco to the East Bay. But he had run aground and wanted a tow. Instead, we transferred about half the people to my boat, which lightened his enough to get him off the bottom.

Our new passengers all had stories of trying to find ways out of the City, and somehow these folks had managed to escape in a way that must have been at least slightly enjoyable despite the tragedy all around them. Sailing saved the day for this small group.

• Mike Herz: Twenty years ago, I was the San Francisco Baykeeper and happily sitting at Candlestick Park with thousands of other fans waiting for the start of the first game of the first-ever Transbay World Series. It started as a rumbling that I thought was just impatient fans stamping their feet to get the game started. But the rumbling got louder and continued for far too long. I looked up from the field, where everyone was milling around, to see the light poles dancing, swinging through 40- to 50-ft arcs, threatening to fall onto the now-frantic crowd.

Fifteen seconds later, just as my adrenalin rush kicked in, the shaking stopped. We looked at each other, smiled, said, “That was a good one!” and continued waiting for the game. Nothing seemed to be happening. After a while, we could see a smoke plume rising outside the park from some indeterminate East Bay location and learned that a section of the Bay Bridge was down.

I freaked since I had a wife and baby at home in Berkeley. My sole focus became getting home. Figuring that the traffic would be a nightmare, I realized that my best ride home would be the Baykeeper boat, which was docked at Gashouse Cove. I just had to get to the Marina from Candlestick.

It was pandemonium! Traffic into the City was bumper to bumper, especially on surface roads. I made it as far as the Embarcadero but then had to abandon my car and continue on foot. People were helpful, as they often are in crises, so I began hitching rides and jumping out to walk when traffic totally stalled. When I made it past the top of Nob Hill, I found people sitting on doorsteps and street corners watching the firemen fighting the many fires in the Marina.

I finally made it to Fort Mason and found that the parking lots had become cracked and crazed due to liquefied sand fill that lies under most of the Marina. I made it to the Baykeeper boat, started the engines, turned on the running lights, threw off the mooring lines and headed for the East Bay. Navigating the empty Bay was easy. No one else seemed to be out there. I cleared the darkened Fort Mason piers and headed east.
Although I’d crossed the Bay at night many times before, it soon became obvious that something was missing — the lights of the City and the various bridges. My familiar landmarks on Yerba Buena and Treasure Island were totally dark, and it was very spooky out there. I made it past Alcatraz, Yerba Buena and Treasure Islands, and was beginning to think I was in the clear until I found myself aground on the mudflats between Emeryville and Berkeley. Fortunately, I was able to raise the engine enough to back out, head north, find a gap in the Berkeley Pier and feel my way into the Berkeley Marina.

Getting home from the Marina was another adventure, but it all had a happy ending. The family was intact even though the quake had sloshed water out of the tub where my nine-month-old was taking her bath. A month later, our Berkeley brown shingle was on the market and we were moving to the bedrock of Muir Beach.

• Eric Lyons: I was talking to a colleague in my office on Marinship Way in Sausalito at 5:04 on October 17, 1989. My tall bookcase started rocking violently, and my colleague had to hold it so it wouldn’t topple over. Seemed like it shook forever. It was pretty obvious that this wasn’t just a typical little rumble. Then the power went out.
Working at a software company without electricity isn’t very productive, so everyone filtered out of the building to find out how extensive the quake really was. Within minutes, the roads all around Sausalito were jammed. Since it was impossible to get anywhere by car, I decided we might just as well get on my Ericson 32, Rebecca, which was berthed nearby, for a little reconnoiter on the Bay.

It was a beautiful evening — very warm and completely still, not a breath of wind. We just thought we’d float about for a while until the traffic cleared. I brought along my brand new Nokia Mobira cellphone — a 10-lb beast of a thing that was pretty rare in those days. When we got on the boat, I turned on the radio to see if there were any reports of damage around the Bay. We could hardly believe our ears: “Freeway collapse in Oakland!” “Bay Bridge section collapsed!” “Fire in the Marina District!” What? I gave a little urgency to the throttle and, within a couple of minutes, we were clearing the Spinnaker restaurant at the end of the channel.

Sure enough, we looked over at the Bay Bridge and could clearly see the collapsed section. But what really got our attention was the Marina fire. Huge flames were leaping into the sky, reflected off a rarely-seen, glass-like Bay. It almost looked like the St. Francis YC was on fire, as the flames were almost directly behind it from our angle. One passenger and his wife lived in the Marina, and had left a cat in their apartment. We decided to motor across the windless Bay to the Marina so they could try to find their cat.

I don’t recall seeing a single boat on the Bay, though we became pretty focused on watching the fire and listening to the radio as we motored. The closer we got, the bigger the fire seemed to be getting, and then — get this — when we were still about a half-mile from the Marina entrance, we started to feel the heat from the fire! I kid you not. It was the freakiest sensation. Here we were, seemingly alone on the Bay, watching a city that was getting darker by the minute (there was no electricity in SF for several days, if you’ll recall), with this huge fire lighting up the sky — and actually feeling warm to our skin. The only sounds were Rebecca’s Atomic 4 and what seemed like 1,000 sirens from shore.

We pulled into the Marina and hastily tied off at the dock right in front of St. Francis. I remember it being very low tide, and there were fire trucks on Marina Boulevard with firemen running hoses into the Bay. My friends ran off into the mayhem to find their cat. My friend Bob and I tried futilely to make some calls on the cellphone, then decided to go ashore to see what we could see.

Things just got more surreal from there. I don’t recall our exact path because it was just all so weird: The sidewalks were randomly crumpled. Buildings had huge cracks, or were leaning over precariously, or had pancaked on top of their parking garages. The streets were filled with people, just wandering and staring. The only light was the light of the fire, as by this time the sun had gone down. Everywhere we looked, the damage seemed so severe that it occurred to us there must be injured (or worse) people around, but strangely, we only saw a few ambulances in the area. No one was acting frantically, no cries for help, just a lot of dazed looks.

Eventually, Bob and I made our way back to the boat, motored back across the still-flat Bay, and I was able to use my cellphone to determine that my house in Mill Valley hadn’t fallen down the hill on which it was perched. Our friends found their cat, and took a bus back across the bridge to Marin. I got a call from my girlfriend (now wife) a little later in the evening. A native San Franciscan, she was in Utah on business and could only watch the news on TV!

• Jeff Winkelhake: During the Loma Prieta quake, I was driving from work in Emeryville to Alameda, where I lived aboard my Beneteau First 46 in Marina Village. I had just driven through the Cypress Interchange and down the 880 section (which collapsed only a few minutes later) and, as I turned into the tunnel to Alameda, the first shocks hit. At first it felt like all four tires had gone flat. By the time I realized it was a quake and saw the freeway fall in my rear-view mirror, I was already heading down into the tunnel. As I sped through the tunnel, I found water at the bottom of the tube! I had to decide whether to drive through or get out of the car and run back up to the Oakland side — the tube might be flooding from Estuary waters.

Being a typical sailor, and having had water tank hoses spring leaks into the bilge, I stopped, opened the car door and tasted the water — fresh, thank goodness! I later discovered the water had come from broken fire hydrants on the Alameda side. In addition to all the water at the bottom of the tunnel, at the top, there were electrical wires loose and bouncing in the water . . . lots of sparks.

The loss of the Cypress interchange and the spur of 880 to Oakland, to say nothing of the inconvenience of not having the Bay Bridge to cross for months, affected our commute for years.

On the lighter side, as the company was closed for four days of damage assessment, all my business friends came to join me for beers on the boat — a safe haven from the aftershocks — although all of the wheel-rollers which allow the docks to rise and fall on pilings had broken.

• Blake Middleton: I was the head coach at Stanford at the time, and was running the Stanford sailing team practice on Redwood Creek, off of South San Francisco Bay. We were sailing in light breezes just after 5 p.m. My goal was always to wrap up practices every day by starting the final race or practice drill no later than then. That day I decided to yank a skipper out of his boat (he was being a wanker and needed to be pulled anyway), jump into the boat, steal his crew and compete in the final race myself. I used to do that every couple of weeks, as needed. Usually I would get crushed by most of the team because 1) they were that good, and 2) they would all gang up on the coach. On October 17, I actually was winning.

The quake hit on the last leg of the final practice race of the day. (It was the only race I won the entire fall season.) We could barely feel the quake through the water, but we could sure hear and see the effects all around us on shore.

When it first hit, all we actually felt was a rhythmic thumping on the hull of the boat. Nothing was visible on the water nor was there any wave action. After a few seconds, we realized that a quake was in progress, mostly from hearing the terrible noise associated with everything on shore moving and groaning under stress. It reminded me of the kind of noise associated with tornados at close proximity — sort of like a freight train bearing down on you.

At one point I noticed a car parked near the edge of the main Redwood City pier lifting off the ground, one wheel at a time. That’s the moment I realized that something truly big was underway. On one side of the Redwood City turning basin, we could see (and hear) the big cranes from the car-crushing plant swinging madly back and forth. On the opposite side, there were numerous mini-avalanches of salt sliding down the sides of the huge Cargill salt pile located next to the Stanford Sailing Center.

The whole thing was over in less than 20 seconds. When we got back to the dock, a handful of people (including a couple of team member parents who happened to be in town) were there, sitting on the ground. When I asked why, the reply was that “it was easier to just stay down after being thrown to the ground several times!” Considering that much of the shoreline around the turning basin is salt marsh, and much of the surrounding land was built on fill, it didn’t surprise me that some major liquefaction was probably happening there during the quake.

The drive home to Menlo Park, normally a 10-minute trip, took about 30 with the power out — including traffic lights — and cars jammed everywhere. Drivers were polite, each taking it easy and taking turns at uncontrolled intersections, as we all listened to early reports of the Cypress Structure and Bay Bridge section collapses on KCBS Newsradio.

At my apartment, the only damage was a couple of small cracks in one wall, a few picture frames hanging at odd angles, and one lamp on its side. Three miles away at the Stanford University Campus, there were hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. I’m not certain, but I believe that some of the ‘temporary’ buildings and trailers put up at Stanford in the weeks that followed are still there even today.

• Pete Wolcott: After an all-day meeting ended early, about 2 p.m., I decided to head out for a sail from our South Beach slip. After a quick stop for ice, beer and snacks, a couple of friends and I were underway aboard Route du Vent about 4 p.m, headed for the main Bay.

At 5:04 p.m., we were probably about 200 yards from the Ferry Building, heading northwest. Two things happened virtually simultaneously: 1) thousands and thousands of birds took flight at the same time, all around the horizon. It was like something out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. And 2) we felt a light jarring, as though we’d just run aground on a soft, sandy bottom. Then we began to notice other things: the clock tower on the Ferry Building was damaged, smoke started rising from fires along the Embarcadero, there were fires breaking out in Oakland and, finally, big plumes of smoke were coming over the hill (from what we later learned were the Marina fires). I grabbed our portable, battery-powered TV, turned it on and only got test patterns — on all channels. For a second, we thought it was the end of the world. The last thing we noticed was the Bay Bridge. The traffic had been at a standstill for a few minutes, and we finally saw a huge mass of people running west across the bridge toward the City. That image was just like the panic scene from a Godzilla movie.

After some time, the TV came back on, and we were riveted to the news. We returned to South Beach Harbor, all of us incredibly concerned about our families and friends (who were all okay). Yet, there was an almost creepy irony that, here we were, safe on a boat in the marina with plenty of power, pretty good communications, and plenty of food and fresh water. Since that day, our sailboat has always had an ark-like aspect.

• Brooks Townes: I was changing the oil in my beloved old Volvo 1800 on the Arques Shipyard property near Sausalito’s Richardson Bay Boatworks when the quake struck. The car was parked with the front wheels up on some boatyard blocks. The hood was up, the oil draining. I was head-down, rummaging under the front seats for the fresh bottles of oil and filter when everything began shaking.

“Cut it out!” I yelled, thinking a buddy was rocking the car. I didn’t want the hood to fall.
There was no answer.

I backed out of the car and stood up. Above, power lines danced against the sky, a transformer down the way blew with fireworks, and over yonder, big rotten pieces of Lefty’s Pier splashed into Richardson Bay.

“Let’s rock and roll!” I heard Billy Martinelli yell from out of sight over by the yard office.
On the ways, a 45-ft or so trawler rocked back and forth, spitting out blocks and wedges, antennae whipping this way and that. I put my hands on my head and watched, sure the thing would fall over, but it fetched up against the rail-car’s uprights with little apparent damage.

When things settled down, I completed my oil change and drove back to the Sausalito Yacht Harbor, anxious to see how my boat was doing. I had to drive up and around through the hills since Bridgeway was blocked with power lines snaking along the pavement amid debris.

At the harbor, all was well. Dock neighbors said the Bay looked like a lemon meringue pie topping during the quake — agitated, peaky little waves all over the place. The breakwater pilings swayed. Pilings inside the harbor swayed. There was lots of creaking and halyard noises, but not much damage, if any.

Out Pier D, I could see smoke rising from the Marina District over in San Francisco, and with binoculars it was clear something was going on over near the East Bay end of the Bay Bridge and ashore, but my neighbor and I couldn’t make out what.

He fetched a portable belly-telly out of his Grand Banks, put it on a dock box and tried to find some news. Stations had been knocked off the air so that was seeming futile when we got a scratchy picture and sound that told us a bit about the bridge section collapse and the Marina fires and the Nimitz collapse, but all was sketchy.

Down the dock came a banker who had his boat further out the dock. He had a home and family in a distant suburb and often stayed weeknights on his boat. He stopped to watch our TV, and we couldn’t help but notice a big wet spot on his three-piece flannel banker’s outfit.

He said he’d been on an upper floor of his bank’s high-rise in the City. “The big collating Xerox machine danced away from the wall, then danced back and went through the wall! It was so frightening I wet my pants,” he blurted, then turned red.
“So we noticed,” my neighbor and I grinned in unison.

In a little while, another neighbor motored back into the harbor. “You guys see the big fire over in the Marina District?” he yelled as he passed. “Any idea what it is?”

He was surprised to learn there’d been an earthquake. He was out singlehanding his big new sloop and never felt a thing.

Some time later, Workboat magazine asked me to do a story on the emergency ferry service one of Crowley Maritime’s executives put together immediately after the quake. With bridges out or closed, this fellow, well-connected around the waterfront, rounded up Hornblower charter yachts, the Red & White fleet, sundry yachts, party boats and suitable workboats, and all quickly began hauling commuters from San Francisco, and the ball park’s World Series crowd, across to the East Bay, to Marin and up to Vallejo.
It was quite a feat. This fellow, Finley or Findley was his name, was a veteran Crowley man and yachtsman. He knew nearly every waterman on the Bay and was known and well respected in return. I interviewed him in his luxurious corner office on the 53rd floor of a high-rise on California Street. Two walls were floor-to-ceiling glass looking out over the City and Bay. He sat behind a teak desk big as an aircraft carrier. Behind it loomed a large teak credenza. The quotes here are from memory and not exact, but mighty close: Partway through our chat, I asked where he was when the quake hit.

“Right here!” he said, eyes wide. “This building was engineered to withstand quakes by flexing 30-some feet off center each way at the top. One minute I could see nothing but sky as it swayed; the next I could only see the building across the street, and down to the street at the base of our building, where people were lying in the street. The next moment, it went back to all sky.

“I tried to get out of here but this big credenza fell over, blocking my way to the door, so I had to crawl on the floor — I couldn’t keep my feet — around next to those windows (which go all the way down to the carpet)! It was indescribable!”

I thought of that banker and his Xerox machine.

“Did you wet your pants?” I asked.

It was one of those moments: Here was a national magazine’s reporter taking notes, asking the international executive if he’d wet his pants. We both recognized it at once and laughed, and he wasn’t about to answer.

With elevators out (power was out all over town), this aging executive had to run down 53 flights of stairs. “Younger staff were going down fast and I had to keep up or fall and risk trampling. I made it, barely, and fought cramps when I got out on the street.”

Most of his impromptu ferry system was set up using VHF radio, he said, and a mere 20 minutes after the main quake subsided, his citizen’s ferries began hauling passengers.

Later I was told by an earthquake specialist, a geologist and hydrologist, that we were lucky ‘our’ quake wasn’t centered just past one end of the Bay or the other, for then we’d have had a “bathtub situation.” That, he explained, is when the water stampedes from one end of the Bay to the other in a series of slowly diminishing tsunamis, like the water in a bathtub when a fat lady sits up suddenly, setting up a surge. Had that happened in 1989, the damage to boats and marinas and waterfront communities would be hard to fathom.

Later came the story a Workboat editor requested on the new fireboat:

San Francisco or the Port had its fireboat, the Phoenix, on the market when the quake hit. As I understood it, some genius bureaucrat decided San Francisco no longer needed a fireboat. Besides, the Phoenix was old. Apparently it was thought all those huge old creosoted piers rimming the City’s north and east sides would never burn, and whatever fires might happen could be handled with the little monitors aboard police boats, a few Coast Guard craft, and perhaps Oakland’s fireboat.

Then came The Quake and the Phoenix saved the day. When the Marina District fire had taken just about all the water in San Francisco’s pipelines and from the cisterns under numerous intersections (wisely built after the '06 quake), the for-sale fireboat steamed around to the northern waterfront, hooked up to a big manifold prudently placed years ago for this purpose, fired up its massive water pumps, and recharged the City’s fire-fighting system with Bay water.

That was credited with keeping the Marina fire from spreading over more or perhaps all of San Francisco.

PS — A day or two after the quake, I ran into waterfront bon-vivant Jack Harshburger who said curiosity prompted him to tour Sausalito’s bars after the temblor. He discovered in all the bars running north and south, the booze bottles on the back-bars rattled some but stayed on the shelf. In the establishments with back-bars stretching east to west, the bottles fell off. Or maybe it was the other way around. At any rate, according to Jack, the quake shook and rolled in such a way that bars oriented one way bought new booze afterward while those facing perpendicular didn’t have to.

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This story is a Web-only special feature. A shorter version can be seen in the Sightings section of the October 2009 issue of Latitude 38.


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