Loma Prieta Earthquake: The BIG One (So Far)

Gina’s comment regarding my most recent post reminded me that although I’ve spent relatively little time at our local convention center, that site was also where I was when the terrible Loma Prieta Earthquake that killed so many people and wreaked havoc around the Bay Area struck.

I was upstairs in a restroom walking toward a sink when it hit. The room swayed quite a bit and I staggered and leaned forward to grab a sink and stabilize myself. I remember thinking, “Wow, that’s a pretty big earthquake, but thankfully not as big as the one I’d recently experienced in the dead of night at home.”

I couldn’t have been more wrong. It turns out that if you’ve got to be in an earthquake, being in a public restroom is a great and relatively safe place to experience it. Everything is bolted down, there is usually very little if anything that is likely to break or fall off a wall, etc. Who knew?

I got a much better taste of just how bad the quake had been when I went downstairs in the convention hall where a career event was taking place. A crowded job fair, with a hundred companies and thousands of people, and where almost everything is a temporary setup (including booths that are quickly put together with lots of stuff hanging off their walls, and piles of collateral materials everywhere)is an ideal place to NOT be during an earthquake. Debris and chaos, and panicked people were everywhere.

Booth walls and everything that had been hanging on them had fallen. Several acoustic ceiling tiles had shaken loose and had either dropped to the floor or were hanging precariously. Some people (mostly out-of-towners who had never experienced an earthquake) were screaming, and many people—-both locals and those who’d flown in for the event–were heading for the exits. I remember one Texan swearing, “I’m never coming to California again!” At that moment I couldn’t blame him.

One of the owners of the job fair production event company—who I’d known for years—-came up to me, and to avoid panicking folks, whispered in my ear that he’d just heard that both the Bay Bridge and a key highway had collapsed, and it looked as though a lot of people may have died. Hundreds, perhaps thousands. The top part of a double-decker freeway had collapsed onto the bottom part and both the bridge and the highway were jammed with commuters). In shock, my instinctive reply was, “You’re kidding!” But it was clear that he wasn’t kidding and I’ve regretted and felt shame about my reply ever since.

The job fair was canceled and everyone headed for their cars at the same time as we all tried to call loved ones on our cell phones, which of course completely jammed all the phone circuits so almost no one could get through.

Thousands of cars headed for the same 12-way intersection at the same time. The quake had knocked out all for the traffic signals. At rush hour. With the cross street a major commute artery and with everyone anxious to get home to their loved ones. A perfect recipe for complete gridlock.

As we all sat in that mess, more aftershocks rumbled, and we tried to find out what was happening via our car radios. But there was only silence. Not just silence from one or two of our many local radio stations. ALL of them. The transmission towers had all been knocked out by the quake or its aftershocks. That was an eerie and scary feeling. Drivers opened their windows and asked each other if they could get any radio stations. No one could.

A little later I heard a faint voice come over the radio. I’ve forgotten some of the details of what the man said all those years ago but I’ll never forget the gist of his message:

“This is KXXX from (some city in) Nevada sending our love and prayers to all of our brothers and sisters In California who are being affected by the big earthquake that just hit the San Francisco Bay Area.”

His message sent chills down my spine. I was grateful for that voice from so far away, and for his message, but was also alarmed that so much infrastructure must have been knocked out between Nevada and me that I could hear his radio signal from so far away.

It took an excruciatingly long hour to get through that single intersection. It was now dark and I had a long way to go before I could get home. The signal lights at many othe intersections betwen where I was and where I wanted to be were also out. I was afraid for my wife and young boys, but comforted by the knowledge that our home was built on solid bedrock (the best foundation for a quake), and sturdily made out of wood–which, like the branch of a willow tree tends to bend rather than break or crumble when the ground shakes.

It was a good thing that I didn’t know at the time that the epicenter was fairly close to our home and that the main street of a town only about 5 miles away was largely in ruins (because many of its old buildings and/or their facades were made of bricks and other masonry and had collapsed.)

This post is getting long, so I’m going to end it here. I hope to be able to finish this story in the next few days.

About russtowne

My wife and I have been married since 1979. We have 3 adult children and 4 young grandsons. I manage a wealth management firm I founded in 2003. My Beloved is a Special Education teacher for Kindergartners and First Graders. I'm a published author of 23 books in a variety of genres for grownups and children. In addition to my family, friends, investing, and writing, my passions include reading, watching classic movies, experiencing waves crashing on rocky shores, hiking in ancient redwood forests, and enjoying our small redwood grove and fern garden.
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6 Responses to Loma Prieta Earthquake: The BIG One (So Far)

  1. Elyse says:

    I can’t wait to hear the end.

    And you know your “your kidding” response? Once when I ran into a neighborhood kid who I knew had just come back from a vacation with his family, I asked: “How was your vacation?” “Awful,” he told me, “my father died.” “You’re kidding,” I replied. He looked at me exactly like I deserved to be looked at. I still feel bad about it.

  2. russtowne says:

    Hi, Elyse. Thank you for sharing that story with me. I’m sorry that you experienced the same sinking, “Did I really just say that?’ feeling. Somehow it makes me feel better that I’m not the only human on the planet who would say something like that when hearing such terrible news.


  3. The bathroom at home is also a good place to ride out an earthquake.

    • russtowne says:

      True–unless one is in the shower. The local newpaper mentioned people who were injured while taking a shower. Wet and slippery while on a roller coaster ride is a recipe for trouble, but apparently the bigger problem was broken glass on the floor that became a mine field for bare feet.


  4. Gina's Professions for PEACE says:

    Russ, I want to read the rest… please post soon! I do want to comment on this part: “In shock, my instinctive reply was, “You’re kidding!” But it was clear that he wasn’t kidding and I’ve regretted and felt shame about my reply ever since.”
    Dear friend, you must know how natural a reaction that was, and to no longer hold on to that. Shock during such a massive disaster can change our very personalities. As one who lives in a northern ‘tornado alley’ I watch the skies, do what I can to prepare. But I know I must realize, if/when IT hits, it may not matter, however prepared I think I am. It sure brings us back to faith doesn’t it?

  5. russtowne says:

    Will do, Gina. Hopefully tonight.

    Thank you for your kind comments. Yes, I get it at the logical level, it’s a bit more of a cahllenge to get it at an emotional level.

    Yes, where would humanKIND be without hope and faith?

    Best reagrds,

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