The 6.9 magnitude quake struck at 5:04 pm on the 17th of October, 1989. It was, by far, the largest quake this native Californian had ever experienced. I was at my office in Milpitas standing in the doorway of the Customer Service Director’s office talking to a couple of colleagues back east. I remember my exact words:
“Wow. We’re having a earthquake. It’s a big quake, Pete—we’re out of here.” And, we hung up.
I thought the false ceiling and fluorescent lights might fall on me. I dove under the secretary’s desk just outside my colleague’s office (she had headed home early that day to watch the Giants play the Oakland A’s in the world series at 5 p.m.). While the earthquake was still shaking, I pulled the phone off the desk above me and called my house. We didn’t have cell phones 25 years ago and I knew the phone lines would be jammed for hours. I immediately reached my house, confirmed everyone at home was okay, that I was okay, and I would start driving home immediately.
I didn’t know at the time my usual 20-minute commute would take 2 hours that night. Why? With all the power out, traffic built at all the intersections. I didn’t want to drive under any overpasses on my way home out of concern they might not be safe. I thought carefully about how to select a safe route home.
The vast majority of drivers were pretty courteous under the circumstances. I stopped by the retirement home where my grandmother lived to check on her and was nearly hit by a driver speeding in what would have been the parking lane without any headlights on.
That night was a bit scary. The evening was warm so we had the windows open. We had no way to circulate the air, so, it was a very long, warm night. All we heard were first responders (fire, emergency medical services) making runs all night long. Nothing but sirens.
Our power came back on about 11 a.m. the next day. We were very fortunate. Some would have to wait for days or weeks.
We had a few thousand dollars worth of damage. It was 10 years later we learned that our brick chimney had been damaged and needed to be rebuilt. We were lucky that hadn’t toppled over the course of the 10 years and cause extensive damage to the house.
I remember thinking we had no way to protect ourselves if someone wanted to loot our house. I wondered if I needed to acquire a gun. I never have. We were home and didn’t work the next day—the power outages would have made it impossible.
I did get a voice mail from one of my employees, Judy. The call was haunting. She drove home to the Big Basin area near the epicenter of the quake the next day. She lived in an apartment built over a 3-car garage. One end of the garage collapse throwing all her stuff from one end of the apartment to the other. Her voice mail message revealed the horror of what she had just seen. As she drove to her place, all the other homes were fine. It wasn’t until she reached her place that she saw any devastation. Her landlord lived in the main house, a 4,000 square foot, multi-story home. That home had been pitched off its foundation about 10 feet down the mountain. It, too, would have been a total loss.
While most of the major media was located in San Francisco and showed pictures of fire and destruction there, we live nearly 50 miles further south and much closer to the earthquake’s epicenter. Our friends and relatives worried that if San Francisco suffered the impacts it did, Silicon Valley and Santa Cruz must have been removed from the map. It was an understandable concern for the next day after the earthquake.
All in all, the Bay Area was very fortunate—the deaths and injuries from the quake could have been much worse. Here’s a link to a very good article about the earthquake.
© 2014 Dave Gardner