Loma Prieta: The devastation, gratitude

San Francisco Giants vs Oakland Athletics, 1989 World Series
Giants pitcher Kelly Downs carries his nephew Billy Kehl after Loma Prieta Earthquake. Photo by John Iacono /Getty Images.

By John Murphy

October 17, 1989, around 5 p.m. my brother Jim and I had settled into seats at Candlestick Park for Game 3 of the so-called “Bay Bridge”  World Series.

He was teaching at South San Francisco High. I was living in Watsonville and had begun work at the Fremont Argus newspaper.

The A’s were up two games to none but, hey, this was World Series. Spirits were high.

Then it happened. At 5:04 p.m. there was a loud rumble and hard shaking that gained momentum. I noticed the bleachers in right field swaying and half the fans sprinting for the exits. In a teaser to ESPN’s 30-by-30 show that premiered Monday,  a worker describes the horror of being on a light tower and feeling it sway.

But I’m  third-generation native San Francisco and we’re used to earthquakes, no matter the ferocity.

“Rock the A’s!” one Giants’ fan yelled after the 15 seconds of shaking. “Yeah, rock the A’s said another and a rally cry was born.

So unconcerned was I that I went to a concession stand and requested two beverages … and was served!

Well, we all know now, this was no minor league temblor. There were players in uniform milling around the middle of the diamond with their children perched on their shoulders. Easterners, we thought. But then 10, 15, 20 minutes passed and the scoreboard never came back on and we knew the game was in jeopardy. Soon the P.A. announcer confirmed it and we trudged out of the concrete stadium, confused and disappointed.

Heading back to our car, someone heard the report on their transistor radio, the Bay Bridge had collapsed (partially true). Someone else heard the epicenter was Watsonville (untrue, but it scared the heck out of me).

Mangled home in Watsonville.

Long story short, it was a 6.9 magnitude shaker 10 miles northeast of Santa Cruz, near the Loma Prieta peak of the Santa Cruz mountains. Sixty-three people died as a result and over 3,700 were injured. The event caused $8-10 billion in property damage.

Just outside Watsonville, my significant other at the time was on Highway 1 when the pavement began undulating and cars spun out. She thought she had a blowout. In downtown Watsonville, a falling brick from the ancient Oddfellows Building hit an old man, killing him instantly.

Farther north in downtown Santa Cruz, a young woman at the Santa Cruz Roasting Company was trapped inside the crippled building and was never heard from again. Her friends maintained a vigil outside, chanting her name all night and praying — but she was already dead, along with two co-workers.

Old wooden homes in Watsonville not bolted to their foundation were mangled and deformed. A tent city rose on the Watsonville High football field, right near my old house. Many were farm workers who had been through the recent quake in Mexico City where building codes aren’t nearly so strict; they refused to return to their Watsonville dwellings.

The Rolling Stones played in Oakland around that time and Mick Jagger toured Watsonville, it was reported. Ford’s Department store on Main Street was condemned and my better half lost her job.

Life went on. The Giants got swept by the A’s and I missed Game 3 to cover a James Logan High School football game. I sold my Game 3 ticket stub, now a collector’s item.

Back in Watsonville, FEMA came around and surveyed our wrecked china cabinet, broken crystal and busted water heater. The worker took pity, cutting us a check for $1,500. It wasn’t much, but at least we lived to tell about it.




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