Saturday, October 17, 2009

it was twenty years ago today...

it's been twenty years since the loma prieta earthquake rocked the san francisco bay area.

i was there, sitting at my desk when the noise started.

the next fifteen seconds went on and on and on -- far longer than the time on the clock.

the shaking started just a heartbeat after the basso rumbling, and it still took a moment to register. no, it wasn't an 18-wheeler going by. this was something much bigger. then came the sound of a heavy filing cabinet hitting the floor above our heads.

my next thought was to get out of the building.

* * *

mrs. spaceneedl and i lived in the marina district in 1989. we had a great apartment at the corner of chestnut and broderick -- right on the tour bus route. that part wasn't so great. when the buses went by we couldn't hear a thing above the roar. we'd have to stop conversations, rewind whatever movie we were watching, and wait for quiet to return. until the next bus.

still, it was an ideal location, in a world-class city. it was minutes away from my job at an ad agency south of market, and a hub for the missus' job, which required her to travel to hospitals around the bay area.

on her rounds she regularly drove the cypress street viaduct in oakland, an elevated, multi-level section of freeway (almost identical to the alaskan way viaduct in seattle). the structure collapsed in the quake, crushing cars between its tiers.

i didn't think about that, and what might have happened to her, because she was out of town that day. it was close, though. her flight back to sfo was already in the air, and returned to minneapolis when the quake hit. she didn't learn whether i was safe or otherwise until three days later.

* * *

a colleague and i made it as far as my office doorway. at that point the shaking was so intense it was all we could do to hold onto the doorframe. from throughout the building, over the roar of the quake, we heard heavy crashes as bookshelves and cabinets and other furniture was thrown around.

the 15 seconds finally ended, the shaking stopped, and the noise subsided. the adrenaline rush continued for hours.

the yelling began immediately as we checked on each other. miraculously, no one in our office was hurt. the power was out, obviously, but the land-line phones still worked and someone had a battery-powered radio. the early reports said the bay bridge had collapsed and the marina was on fire.

for while, no one ventured out of the building. it was as if we weren't sure what to do next, how we'd get home, or what we'd find when we got there.

around the corner from our office a brick facade had collapsed, killing five people. the damage looked so minor, compared to the rest of the bay area. in all, 67 people died that day. given the scale of the destruction, it's a wonder there weren't more.

* * *

it seemed like a long time before we finally ventured out. dusk was falling, and the radio reports kept getting worse. some folks had gotten ahold of loved ones, who passed along exaggerated rumors of damage and death. the reality was bad enough.

i'm not sure how i got back to the marina that evening. i vaguely recall making my way along the damaged embarcadero freeway for a stretch, then heading west. it was full-on dark by the time i reached an entrance to the neighborhood, which was barricaded and guarded. i showed my driver's license and was waved in. our building was still standing, and people with flashlights were going in and out. i found the owner and borrowed a flashlight. i was expecting the worst as the two of us entered the apartment, wasn't so bad. one of our TVs was face-down on the floor, there were cracks in the walls and random debris was scattered about.

but the fact that we could get in at all was fortuitous, as there were buildings burning or down in the street all around us.

i numbly grabbed some clothes and some of our valuables (which in retrospect weren't particularly valuable), and threw them all in the car. i headed north across the golden gate bridge toward a cousin's house in novato.

they never even lost power.

* * *

mrs. spaceneedl arrived home several days later -- in the meantime, i looked for a new place to live. our apartment building was habitable, but was going to be without power, water or gas for 16 weeks. the owner agreed to cancel the lease of anyone who asked.

it was blind luck that i quickly found a condo in mill valley, on the tiburon side of 101. it was on the edge of the ring mountain preserve, and was only slightly more expensive than our place in the marina. it even had views of the city across san francisco bay.

the earthquake dreams began shortly thereafter. at least once a week i'd wake up sure we'd just had a major aftershock, though that never turned out to be the case. the dreams, startlingly vivid, continued until we moved to minneapolis a couple years later.

* * *

twenty years on, stories of the loma prieta quake resonate in me. i read the accounts of the survivors, and the remembrances of those who died, and it stirs deep, dark emotions that i'm not sure i felt at the time.

in the end, my wife, my friends and family who lived there...we lost nothing of any real importance in the quake.

so i wonder why i react so strongly -- and if they feel the same way -- when these anniversaries roll around.

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