UnderCurrents: Loma Prieta: How You Miss History While in the Midst of It

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday October 15, 2009 - 01:00:00 PM

Though I was in the Bay Area in October of 1989, I missed Loma Prieta. The shaking part of it, that is. 

I was living in the South when the Bay Area Rapid Transit was built, and after I returned, I rode it all around the East Bay, from Richmond to Fremont. For the longest time, however, I avoided taking BART to San Francisco, because of the completely irrational fear of being caught on the train under the bay during a major earthquake. But life being as it is, under the bay on BART was exactly where I was when the largest Bay Area earthquake of my lifetime struck. 

I was working at a small San Francisco law firm and the four partners were all season-ticket Giants fans so, of course, they all took half a day off that day to go to the World Series. Around 4:30, I decided to take off as well. If I hadn’t, I would have been stuck in San Francisco without transportation back home to the East Bay, as were so many other workers. I caught the last East Bay train out of the Embarcadero Station before the earthquake hit. 

I may have felt Loma Prieta, but if I did, I didn’t know it at the time. It was a crowded commuter car and I was standing up sandwiched between a pack of other commuters, hanging on to the overhead rail to keep from falling into someone’s lap. BART probably gets up to its highest speeds in the cross-bay tube, so that it normally rocks and sways in its passage, and perhaps some of the side-to-side movement we felt was the earthquake itself. If so, none of the passengers seemed to notice anything unusual. I certainly didn’t. 

We pulled out of the tunnel and up into the West Oakland Station as usual. And that’s when everything began to change. 

We sat at the station with the doors open for somewhat longer than the normal stop time—again, something not unusual for a BART ride—but as the wait began to stretch out, impatient passengers began to look around and talk among themselves about what the delay might be. Finally, the train operator came on the train’s intercom and said something to the effect that regular BART passengers know that slight train delays are normal, but there was something different about this one. He said he couldn’t get anyone in the BART system on his radio or his car telephone, and said that we would have to wait at the station until he could get some information. Either then or shortly afterwards, he informed the passengers that we could get off the train and wait on the platform if we’d like. He’d keep the doors open and give us plenty of notice before he was ready to leave again. 

It was an unusually warm autumn day—“earthquake weather,” folks later used to call it—and we milled around on the station, enjoying the sun, some of us leaning on the rail and looking out over the scenery, trying to make the best of it. Over to the northwest, I recall seeing a distinctive, thick black smoke cloud hanging low over the buildings, but I thought little of it at the time, believing it to be the discharge from one of the area’s many factories. It only had significance for me later when I saw it replayed over and over again on television broadcasts in the next several days, identified as the fire from a tanker truck smashed when the Cypress Expressway collapsed. 

We had not been out on the platform long when a passenger—probably trying to catch the Giants-A’s World Series game on a portable radio—came running through the crowd shouting, excitedly, something like “There’s been an earthquake! There’s been an earthquake!” He started giving out details from what he was hearing on the radio as he came close to where I was standing. It was 7-point-something, and a freeway was down, and the Bay Bridge had collapsed. 

A great buzz went up through the crowd, and many of us moved towards the western end of the platform, where you could get a good look at the beginnings of the bridge. There was the span, the same as ever, rising out of the West Oakland flats. But the news had left the platform in some unsettlement, and people kept looking around a decidedly quiet Seventh Street for some confirmation, one way or the other. The street below was quiet and, if I remember correctly, decidedly empty. Certainly nothing appeared unusual. 

All of that changed some time afterwards—I’m not at all sure how long—when a BART worker, possibly a station agent, came vaulting up the stairs from the ground-floor station area below, clearly shaken, announcing that there had been a major earthquake, and that all the passengers must immediately exit the upstairs platform. The BART worker did not panic and the evacuation was orderly, but that was the only time during the Loma Prieta experience that I was worried. There were 10 commuter-crowded BART cars of passengers on the platform, all of them trying to file down through—what is it, two stairways?—and while I was waiting my turn to go down, I kept thinking that we had been up there on the platform about a half an hour, and I could have easily walked down those stairs anytime I wanted, but now I was probably going to die waiting in line at the top of those stairs when the aftershock hit and took the platform with it. 

Downstairs there was still no panic, but it was purely chaotic. I went outside in front of the station to see about getting transportation, and there was a great crowd at the bus stop, filling the sidewalk and spilling out into the street. A few buses pulled up, filled with people, and took off, while the crowd at the bus stop—if anything—appeared to grow larger rather than diminish. Figuring there was little hope there, I decided to walk up Seventh Street to downtown to try to catch something there. 

A couple of blocks up Seventh from the BART Station there used to be an onramp to 880 South (it was later torn down as part of the demolition of the Cypress Expressway). A crowd of passengers had moved up there from the station—most of them white—and some had formed a barrier line across the onramp entrance, and were asking the drivers of upcoming cars for rides to the south. I thought to myself at the time that they had probably never set foot in West Oakland in their lives, and were probably more frightened about that prospect than they were, apparently, about getting into complete strangers’ cars. 

They needn’t have been frightened about West Oakland. Walking through the neighborhoods downtown, there was a stunned, almost reverential silence among the crowds who had come out into the sidewalks and streets and were waiting to make sure no more shaking was forthcoming. Seeing the look of a great, shared experience that was in their eyes, that was the first time I began to feel that I had missed something while riding under the bay, something I could never come back and capture, and certainly never experience myself. 

Later, as I got into the downtown area, the atmosphere became more festive, as cafe and restaurant owners kept their doors opened to patrons, and downtown office workers appeared to be getting progressively louder and drunker and more celebratory as they waited for transportation home. 

I have wondered, if I had known about the Cypress collapse while I was up on the BART platform, what I would have done in response. Almost certainly I would have walked over that way, out of the kind of curiosity that sent me into the field of journalism. And once there, I am sure I would have joined in the general rescue effort (on the ground, not climbing up on the expressway platform) as so many other civilians did. If so, my view and experience of Loma Prieta would have been far different. 

But for me, I felt the Great Earthquake of ’89 as the little boy under the nighttime sky who is told, “look, there goes a meteor,” and looking up, finds that it has already passed away. 


PERSONAL NOTE: From time to time, I had worked under contract with a local public relations firm to produce press releases for various East Bay social and community events. This work has not conflicted with my column or my reporting for the Berkeley Daily Planet. Last week, I was asked by the public relations firm to produce a release for a community event sponsored by the office of Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums. I did not contract directly with the mayor’s office, and will not report upon the event, and do not believe the work compromises my position as a reporter who periodically covers the Dellums administration. However, I acknowledge the possibility that some of my readers may feel differently and judge my work accordingly and, thus, in fairness, this disclosure.