First Person: Present at the Re-Creation: Memories of Loma Prieta

By Bill Zarchy
Thursday October 15, 2009 - 12:59:00 PM

October 17, 1989, 5:09 pm 

Section 51, Upper Deck 

Candlestick Park, San Francisco 


“It’s in the drink, man! The Bay Bridge has fallen down!” Uh oh, it’s going to take a while to get home tonight. The man in front of me with the radio pressed to his ear continues to relay news to the fans around us. We’re here for the third game of the World Series. Five minutes ago, the earth shook, and the crowd cheered. Now we start to realize the magnitude of what’s happened. 

A few minutes earlier, Candlestick started to shake like crazy. I looked around in astonishment during the 15 seconds of the temblor. Down below me on the field, a long mound of earth rolled its way under the sod across the outfield from left to center, like a gigantic rolling pin gone mad underground. The grandstand to my right rippled like a bedsheet on a windy day. Above me, the wind baffle, built years before in an attempt to control the notorious Candlestick weather, flapped around like cardboard. 

The shaking stopped. After a moment of astonished silence, the crowd broke into a long, excited cheer. What better way to celebrate this meeting of the Giants and the A’s—this Battle of the Bay—than with a quake? What could be more appropriate, more San Francisco … and Oakland? 

A friend who was in line for beer tells me no one left the line during or after the quake. I look again at the wind baffle. Like the rest of the park, it’s made of reinforced concrete and appears undamaged. Clearly only massive, unimaginable force could cause it to flail around that way. Then we hear that the power is off all over the city and the Bay Bridge is in the drink, and it slowly becomes clear they’re not playing a game tonight. 

I spend the evening in the city with a friend, and around midnight decide to head home to the East Bay. I can’t hop on the broken Bay Bridge, so I’ll drive through San Francisco to the Golden Gate Bridge, then cruise home circuitously through Marin County and across the Richmond Bridge. I start out through empty Potrero Hill streets. It’s eerily dark and quiet in the neighborhoods. The city, usually bright and full of life, has a dead, creepy, Escape from New York feeling. I hear sirens in the distance. 

The excitement level increases when I cross Market Street and head north on Van Ness. Though a few sections of the city have power and the fires continue to rage in the Marina, most streetlights and traffic lights on my route are still out. Police direct traffic at some intersections, and others are completely uncontrolled and dangerous. But many corners have ordinary people out in the middle of the street trying to coordinate the flow of traffic, doing their best imitations of arm-waving traffic cops. In the face of our recent disaster, this spontaneous citizens’ self-mobilization has people smiling and waving at each other. 

Eventually I get home and reunite with my family. All are safe. 

Tragically, a few hundred people are killed. Most neighborhoods are untouched, but Loma Prieta, the Quake of ’89, has a powerful emotional effect. A few people I know threaten to move back to Kentucky, or Florida, or wherever. I have too much time on my hands in the economic lull that follows, and my mood sours. Each time I take our pooch to the dog park, I find myself wondering how I’d get back if another quake hit and the only road in were broken. I obsess about how I would have reacted if the quake had hit earlier in the day, when I was on the bridge. I worry if our house and deck are sufficiently braced for another shaker. 

I’m absorbed by earthquake news and nervewracked by each aftershock. I feel compelled to go see the fallen Cypress Structure and take the dog with me. She throws up in my car. I don’t want to talk to anyone. I’m depressed. 

I’m not the only one. I see on the news that the earthquake has emotionally discombobulated lots of others. TV shrinks implore us all to seek help, to talk about what happened, to share our experiences with those around us. I pass my neighbor in the street and impulsively launch into a detailed description of the events at Candlestick, the rolling pin, the wind baffle, my drive across the city. She looks at me warily, then blurts out her story: She was at home when the quake struck, and ran down the stairs from her house to the street, watching the utility poles on our block whip back and forth like a cartoon, as the ground rolled and shook … an image I now have engrained in my memory as deeply as if I’d witnessed it myself. 

I wander down to the Burger Depot and order a turkey burger as I spill my story again to Dave, the owner. He tells me he was scared as the place shook and plates and glasses rattled off shelves around him. 

The whole region slowly gets back to normal. The World Series resumes after a 10-day delay, but it takes a few weeks for my psyche to soothe. Gradually I start to feel better. Eventually, nearly half a million people claim to have been at Candlestick for the earthquake. 

The Bay Bridge is out for exactly a month. The day before it opens to traffic, they plan a ribbon-cutting ceremony out on the bridge, right at the repaired section, with the mayors of San Francisco and Oakland in attendance. When the state announces that the public will be allowed to walk out onto the Bridge—for the first time ever—to attend the ceremony, I feel that I must bear witness. Having been present at the disaster (I consider that attending the Earthquake Game at Candlestick has given me a very personal stake in this earthquake), I want to be present at the re-creation of the bridge. I take my son out of first grade, impress upon him the historical importance of the occasion, and drag him along. 

We board buses with hundreds of others, which drop us just past the toll plaza and metering lights, and we all begin the long, slow uphill trek. The break was in the very last roadway section before the girdered, Erector-Set superstructure. The mammoth size of the bridge awes us as we tread where no mere mortals have gone before. 

We both start out in a positive frame of mind. It’s a beautiful day, sunny and brisk. This section of the bridge has a fresh coat of paint. Caltrans workers with hard hats stand every few feet, greet us with big smiles, and thank us for coming. The media swarm. The mood is festive. 

A radio reporter interviews my son, who tells her that his daddy assured him “the fixed part of the bridge is now stronger than it was before the earthquake” and that it’s important for us all to walk out here “to show we know the bridge is safe again.” 

But after a long walk, the novelty wears off, and reality sets in. Only four weeks ago, this old bridge shook enough to break its massive concrete roadbed. He starts to get scared and wants to turn back. That’s OK with me. The bunting and crowds are visible up ahead, another five or 10 minute walk. But I’ve had my moment of history. I’ve had my bridge walk. Who cares if we get to see some smelly old ceremony with a bunch of politicians? New memories are replacing the old ones. We turn and trudge back to the buses. The healing is well under way. 


Bill Zarchy is a freelance director of photography, teacher, and writer who lives in Albany.