Saturday, October 17, 2009

20 Years Ago...

Okay, Umlaut will jump on the bandwagon and chime in about the 20th Anniversary of the Loma Prieta Earthquake. For the newbies: It was the biggest earthquake to hit the San Francisco Bay Area since 1906.

On October 17, 1989 I was working at a bookstore in Cupertino in the heart of Silicon Valley (A Clean Well-Lighted Place For Books... R.I.P..) and was just finishing up my shift at the front counter. A couple had just come up to ask me a question when a rumbling sound started at the back of the store (the south end). The rumbling got louder and the lights went out and what happened next was like something out of a movie.

Looking towards the back of the store, books were literally flying off the shelves and the rumbling got louder and louder... Books kept flying off the shelves as The Quake moved towards me... It was like watching a huge wave of books moving through the store. The couple who I had been helping hit the floor and I grabbed onto the counter as the rumbling got deafening and I felt the ground lift up and move under my feet.. Then the rumbling moved behind me on its way North and soon subsided. According to the USGS the quake lasted no more than 15 seconds but, to use a cliché, it felt like it lasted an eternity.

What followed was complete SILENCE... It was amazing. It was also amazing that I was standing no more than 15 feet from a wall of plate glass windows that made up the front of the store, but the glass didn't shatter and shred me. At that point I remember looking around the store and there were books and debris everywhere... I think several of the 8 foot tall shelves in the middle of the store fell over, but no one was hurt. Obviously the power was out, so the only light came from the sunlight coming in through the windows.

Then something happened that I still think about: A guy came into the store as if nothing had happened, walked right up to me at the counter, and asked if I could help him find a book. I stared at him and simply said "NO...." I always wondered if that guy was in shock or just clueless. He seemed completely oblivious to the chaos around him.

It's amazing how those minutes are still vivid in my mind.

Afterwards, my co-workers and I huddled around a car parked in front of the store listening to the chaotic radio reports... The Bay Bridge had collapsed... The Marina was in flames... The Cypress Freeway was destroyed.. Downtown Santa Cruz was in ruins. Chaos. As we stood around in a daze, the store's Assistant Manager went to the deli next door and bought some beers for us. Eventhough it was a Coors (funny that I still remember the brand) it was THE BEST beer I've ever had.

That night I attempted to call friends in San Francisco but no calls were going through or getting out. It's hard to remember what the world was like before cell phones, Wi-Fi, The Internet, etc. but that was the reality 20 years ago; if the phone lines were down you were fucked. Of course, I didn't suffer any real hardships from The Quake of '89... I did know families whose houses were destroyed... people whose lives were changed in a bad way... but not mine. Thankfully, of course.

Then the next day was my birthday!

Four days after The Quake I saw R.E.M. at Shoreline Amphitheatre; the venue was maybe half full when in normal times it probably would have been sold out. When the band launched into their hit song 'It's The End Of The World As We Know It' the crowd went nuts during the opening line "That's great it starts with an earthquake.." I think it took the band a second to remember the meaning of those lyrics at that moment to that crowd... but after that it was a pretty cool concert moment. No, it wasn't Metal... but it did the job that week... and for years afterwards a great conversation starter in a bar was "Where were you during The Quake?"..

For those who care, here's some of the local news footage:

Twenty years gone... and it still sucks that the A's swept the Giants in the World Series.