Blast from the past: Feeling the earth move

Late in the afternoon on October, 17, 1989, I had an assignment to follow a candidate on a door-to-door campaign for local office. We agreed to meet on a certain street in south Stockton. I remember the both of us arriving in our cars simultaneously. As I parked at the side of the street, I felt the car lurch as it came to stop.  I thought I hit bump on the uneven pavement, or perhaps it was a testament to my poor parking skills.

A whole block goes up in flames in San Francisco’s Marina District as a result of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Unknown to me, there was more to that jolt. When the door opened up at the first house the candidate approached, the first thing the homeowner said was “Did you feel that earthquake?”  Puzzled, the both of us answered no. This happened at the next house as well. I had gotten just enough shots to complete the assignment, so I decided to end it and check back with the office.

A resident looks at a buckled sidewalks in the Marina District of San Francisco during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Once back in the car, I called to the city desk (back in those pre-cell phone days our company cars were equipped with two-way radios). I was told that a large earthquake in San Francisco had collapsed the Bay Bridge and I need to head straight to the Stockton Metro Airport. The photo editor had arranged for me to take a helicopter to fly me directly to The City.

A cyclist rides past a collapsed house in the Marina District in the aftermath of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

It was a very small chopper My right shoulder was actually outside of the opening where the door used to be (it was taken off for me to shoot out of). I made sure that my seat belt was tight and secured. It wasn’t very fast: I remember moving only marginally faster the traffic on the freeway.

A portion of the Bay Bridge that collapsed as a result of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake taken the day after the quake.

It took about an hour for the dragonfly-like craft to reach San Francisco, and the light was fading fast. Before we had left Stockton, I was told that a portion of the Bay Bridge had collapsed. As we approached it, air traffic controllers restricted all aircraft to no closer than 1 mile from the bridge. The pilot pushed it to about 1/2-mile, but still the combination of the distance and the need to “push” the film (a low-light shooting technique of under exposing then over developing it) made for a grainy and soft pictures. The light was nearly gone, but I could still see a dark column of smoke coming from the city itself. I asked the pilot to head for it.

A resident walks by a damaged building in San Francisco’s Marina District as a result of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

We reached the Marina District of the City and circled the spot where the smoke rose. About half a block looked like a pit of hell had opened up, consuming all it could. Flames leapt up higher than the surrounding buildings, as I could see a single stream of water shot by firefighters on the ground in a futile attempt to control the blaze. The fire illuminated the surrounding area, and for about half a block or so and I could see some of the damage that the quake caused. I could only imagine what the rest of the city looked like. The final bits of light left the sky, and darkness enveloped the city. The fire, as intense as it was, was dwarfed by the darkness of the rest of the mostly powerless city. Having exhausted the light and pushing deadline, the pilot and I returned to Stockton.

National guard troops patrol a street where brick facades collapsed in Santa Cruz as a result of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Over the next week or so, I was sent back out, both in the air and on the ground, to chronicle the earthquake’s devastation. I was able to get a much closer look at the damage on the Bay Bridge and close-up damage to the Marina District in San Francisco. I shot the collapsed section of the Nimitz freeway and saw facades of buildings collapsed onto the streets in downtown with the National Guard units patrolling the streets in Santa Cruz.

A resident sits with all his belongings in San Francisco’s Marina District as a result of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Our negative archive had limited space, so over the years we moved the older ones into a storage room upstairs at The Record. Since 1989 the newspaper ownership has changed hands a couple of times and in one of those changeovers the storage room was cleaned out, and the negatives, including the ones from the earthquake, were thoughtlessly thrown out, lost to the dustbin of time. All I have left are a few black and white prints, but also indelible memories that I’ll never forget.

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