Saturday, October 17, 2009

Outrunning the Express Train

By the time I post this, another anniversary of the day the earth shook will have passed, twenty years in fact. It was October 17, 1989 and at 4:25 pm I'd finally knuckled my way through traffic, jaws tight, much gnashing of teeth, inching across the Bay Bridge to take my daughter to an acting class in San Francisco and then head to the McKesson corporation for a meeting.

I worked in the theater as managing director of a company in Oakland so really was not conscious of the sports mania around me. But almost everyone around else was in baseball heaven around the fact that the Bay Area was having it's own version of New York's subway series, the Oakland A's versus the San Francisco Giants. I just wanted the darn traffic to end so that I could get where I had to go.

After seeing my twelve year old down the stairs of a very large, very solid looking office building, essentially in the basement of the building to her youth acting class, I still managed to be on time for my meeting, about ten minutes away by car. I walked into the office of the program officer for McKesson's foundation, hand extended to say hello and thank her for her time, only to hear a crunching, grinding, deep wrenching sound and discovered that I could not stand up. We both ended on our knees in her office. That was probably the proper place to be given what was happening around us and the devastation not too far away. I suspect we both silently prayed our way through what was the longest fifteen to twenty seconds in my life.

Once the moving stopped, and I could catch my breath, we looked at each other, nothing broken, no blood, and both bolted for the door. As any Californian will tell you, when it begins to shake, head for a doorway. In my ten years in the Bay Area, we'd always managed to make it to the doorway. Always. Now the only thing I wanted to do was to get through the door and down the stairs.

I don't remember anymore which floor we were on. I don't remember the pounding rush down the stairs, it could have been silent for all I know, the only thing I remember is the pounding of my heart. The stairway was dark as the power was out, there were no flashlights, and a ton of humanity with one goal, get out of the building.

When we hit the ground floor and rushed through the front glass doors, still intact, I couldn't figure out why there were so many people who'd gotten no further than a few feet from the building. Then I began to see, bricks and masonry on tops of cars, hoods and trunks, tops of cars bashed in with huge huge chunks of buildings on top, glass all over the street, buildings with yawning gaping holes where things used to be. It was eerily quiet, with the exception of the sirens. I finally understood that this may have been the big one.

I thought of my daughter in the basement of that big, solid looking building and my heart almost stuttered to a stop. I heard someone say something about a fallen span of the Bay Bridge, they heard it from a portable radio someone had. The bridge that my daughter and I been not twenty minutes ago, for almost a full thirty minutes because of the game.

My feet began to move and my brain caught up with them. "Where was my car, were the streets passable, the traffic lights aren't working, will they let me drive, where was my car?" My brain seemed be on a loop, fear, panic, think, fear, panic, think. I opted to walk rather than chance the streets, plus there were bound to be after shocks. I've never walked as fast in my life.

In the days before the ubiquitous use of cell phones we used public pay phones. And they worked. And they weren't vandalized. But I digress. But that day the system was over loaded and no calls were going out nor coming in right then. I couldn't reach her school, nor my husband and sons across the Bay, nor my office. I kept walking, and fear took three steps to my every one.

When I got to her building they'd managed to safely get the kids up the stairs and into an open air parking lot with no wires around, and not enclosed by buildings nearby. You think about these things in earthquake country. When she saw me, she grabbed me by the waist and hung on for dear life. She'd heard about the Bay Bridge but didn't remember if my meeting was in San Francisco or back across the bridge in Oakland. She'd been all but rooted to the same spot since they'd fled up the stairs with the noise of the earth moving around and through them, loud beyond measure seemingly following them, chasing them up and out of the dark to the outside. She was velcroed to me for the next two months. ("Really, I'll be in the bathroom for only five minutes." I'd come out and she'd still be there waiting. This was two weeks afterward.)

Now joined cheek by jowl to each other and not yet sure how much damage had been done, and if our family had survived, we made our way to a restaurant with, miraculously, power and television. There I saw with mine own two eyes the price one pays for living in California. Nothing however prepared me for the collapse of the freeway. It too had been a parking lot that afternoon on our journey across the bridge. And now it was...gone, collapsed, on top of countless people, missing my across the hall neighbor by twenty feet. Twenty feet became the difference between life and death that day as she watched cars right in front of her just drop out of sight amidst a cloud of smoke, dirt, dust, and debris.

My daughter wiped tears from my face, tears that I was unaware were even sliding down my face. So close, we were so close to having been a statistic.

I decided to make our way through the hordes of dazed and stunned people to my car and try to figure out how far north I had to go to find a bridge open to get me back across the bay and then head south home. Just as we stepped outside the restaurant, courage in hand and fear on a tight rein, I saw a colleague, the face of someone I knew. Brian was wending his way surely but very slowly home on foot, I had a highly dubious chance of making it across the bay that evening but I had a car. We got my car, went to his place and spent the evening glued to the television and trying the phone every five minutes until finally around 11 pm, Eureka, a dial tone. Brian graciously allowed me to go first as a woman with a family in harms way.

Undoubtedly my relief was all but palpable when my husband picked up the phone and I learned that he and the boys had made it through okay, that our apartment was fine, we'd sustained almost no damage at all. Now that he'd heard from us, our daughter in school back east could rest and stop calling every fifteen minutes, he could relay that the two of us were safe and sound and had a place to stay.

In those fifteen seconds on my knees in the office I'd prayed and promised. I prayed for the safety of my family and I promised that when the next earthquake came, "God, I won't be here." When I got back to work, after making a pilgrimage to the Cypress Freeway where they were still trying to locate survivors two days later, I announced, "I'm outta here."

What was so amazing to me was that everyone else wasn't saying the same thing. Instead they tried to talk me out of it. I finally explained that for me and mine, living in California is like living on railroad tracks. You know sooner or later that express train is going to come running through, and me, I'm getting out the way, getting off the track. I'm bowing to the superior strength of mother nature.

If it were just me, I'd have done what one woman did. Packed up her car, walked away and left everything else in her apartment with a note on her door, "Take it, it's yours, I'm not coming back."

Ten months almost to the day we left California for Chicago. We'd survived tremors, shakes, minor quakes and shrugged them all off. We'd survived the annual fall fire season. We even survived mud slides where the homes of two neighbors gave into gravity and soaked land and slid down the hill. We'd survived floods in the rainy season. And I said good riddance and good bye without a backward look at some of the most beautiful country God ever created, but I suspect he meant for us to enjoy it, passing through on our way some place else.


  1. And can I just state for the record here that none were ever more glad to see you all leave California than your Parents...well and me too...But you would have thought you told Mom and Dad you and Harry had won the flipping lottery!! She danced I tell ya!! Danced in the living room...danced in the kitchen...just danced all over the house...Dad dedicated his drinking to you all leaving Cali that weekend...not that he needed a reason to get his drink on...but he felt he had a really good reason once you all were packing up and moving to somewhere where the ground didn't shake and move and all of to visit...beautiful country, temperate weather...gorgeous views...but oh baby...when the ground shakes beneath your feet and you wake up and the bed your sleeping in is no longer against the wall where it was the night before! (that happened the first summer I came to visit in Hayward) It's time ta go!

  2. Wow, I just read this. I wathced that moment on national TV. It was maybe the first national disaster the nation viewed live on TV, before 9/11. Hiram an I had driven to Mom's house. We had some chore to do, but at this time I don't know what. But I know the TV was on, tuned to the baseball game. And then it was all craziness, the ground shaking, the earth splitting open. We watched, with the same riveted attention that over took me on 9/11 when I was in my underware, brushing my teeth when the 2nd plane sliced through tower two. We didn't know each other yet, but I read this post anxiously, wondering what you had gone though on that day. I am grateful that all of you survived and are here now with us. Life is connecte by such thin threads. It is a mericle and a mercy that when we get to see a new day.
    Love you.

  3. It's a good thing you missed the Northridge quake. Almost the exact same scenario. I'm glad to be done with the fall fires myself. I've seen many a friend lose homes to fires caused by birds in power lines, cigarette butts, or some jerk getting his jollies off on the chaos of a burning city. It's good to be in the South.

  4. Looking back upon our experience 20 years ago, I remember that on this fateful day I was in my office on Cal State Hayward's campus looking north towards the skylines of Oakland & San Franciso. While packing my brief case to call it a day, I remember that there was at first a little shaking,then WHAM, the big quake hit. For those not attune to California state law, there was a law instituted years before that all new construction had to be built upon springs to dissipate the energy of earthquakes. Well on this day, my building bounced up & down (as did much of the business district of SF) for what seemed like hours. When it seemed to stop, everyone ran down the staircase. Once outside and at the guidance of campus police, we ran to the parking lot away from the administration building. Looking up at the building, we all knew that this was a major quake because the administration building continued to ride up and down and also sway side to side too.

    Many of us went over to the student union to catch the news on the televisions.We were especially stunned when the news casters said that the fault line actually ran right through the heart of the campus, adjacent to the administration building.

    Normally I rode the Bay Area Rapid Transit train to work from our home in Oakland. After the quake, the B.A.R.T. trains were shut down due to structural damage to the elevated train tracks. In lieu of catching the train, I could only travel by bus. A 45 to 50 minute journey became a 3 plus hour commute through hell. Gazing out of the bus window, I saw people wandering the streets in a daze, cars that had run into each other in the panic and homes that had collapsed or on fire.

    When I arrived in downtown Oakland, the pain of this tragedy finally sunk in. Walking through downtown Oakland to get to our apartment, the streets were littered with bricks, fallen facades & entire buildings that collapsed: Many were the historical Art Deco structures that gave character and charm to downtown Oakland. One side note about this walk home: Save for the occasional ambulance or fire truck siren, there was complete and utter silence.

    When I got home, there was no Keryl or any of our kids. In Keryl's note, she has accounted for where she and Tadao were; the boys were at home when the quake hit. Upon hearing that the fault line went through the campus,the boys took off trying to get to Hayward to see if they could find me. Not being able to get very far,they retreated back to the apartment and when they got home they were relieved to find me there.

    Now our attention was focused upon finding out if Keryl and Tadao made it to SF. Without phone service, we prayed wholeheartedly for their safety. When moderate service was restored, Keryl's voice on the other end of the call provided instant relief.

    One of the most horrifying sights was the site of the collapse of one of the connector spans that led to the Bay highway. We found out later that underneath the rubble were any number of cars with passengers buried alive.

    Needless to say, this tragedy stays with us til today.