Survival Story - Loma Prieta Earthquake 1989

On October 17, 1989, at 5:04 PM, a major 7.2 Earthquake struck Northern California during the San Francisco – Oakland World Series at Candlestick Park. The Loma Prieta Earthquake or World Series Earthquake, as it was later called, killed 63 people and injured 3,757 people.

Our Personal Survival Story

I was alone in my house in Fremont, CA, which is on the East Bay, on the Hayward Fault Line, half way between San Jose, CA and Oakland, CA. I had lived in Northern California since 1986, so I was used to the occasional earthquake. My kitchen cupboards had door locks on them, and my water heater had a strap around it, which was standard practice living in an earthquake zone.

At 5:04 PM, the house started to shake, but within 5 seconds, it got extremely violent, like someone had picked up my house and was giving it a good shaking. I had never experienced anything this strong before, so I took cover under a doorway. It seemed to last forever, but 15 seconds later it was over. The first thing I noticed, was my television signal was out, but I didn’t have cable TV. All the TV stations were off the air. Many of the bay area TV towers had collapsed, and power was cut off. All out of state phone circuits were dead for days.

I was working the night shift at a mainframe support center in Sunnyvale, CA, at the bottom of the San Francisco bay. My normal start time was 9 PM, but that night, I left the house around 7 PM and started heading south on I-880 towards San Jose, CA. Traffic was very light, until I got off the Freeway in Milpitas, CA. All the surface street lights were out, and every intersection was grid locked, due to the power and signal lights being out. It took me about two hours to make it into work, which was normally a 20 minute drive.

The power at work was on due to our large emergency generators. All the pictures on the wall were crooked, and there was a large rip down the center of the main room carpet. We were told the building was closed, but due to the critical support nature of our jobs, we had to remain in here and could not leave. That night we took computer support calls from the San Francisco telephone, electric and gas companies, and we got their mainframe computers up and running, which were needed for emergency calls that night. We stayed at work for the next 3 days, sleeping in our offices, rotating the shifts, until power was restored to the Bay Area.

Major Damages and Injuries

Collapse on the Nimitz Freeway, I-880, in Oakland, CA, where the upper level of a double-deck portion of the freeway collapsed onto the lower-deck, crushing many cars. A 50-foot section of the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge collapsed, leading to a single fatality on the bridge. Three people were killed in the collapse of the Pacific Garden Mall in Santa Cruz, and five people were killed in the collapse of a brick wall on Bluxome Street in San Francisco. In Santa Cruz, CA close to the epicenter, 40 downtown brick buildings collapsed, killing six people.

Early Warning Signs

I remember a very unusual event that happened just hours prior to the earthquake. Around 3:00 PM that afternoon, I saw a packs of dogs running wild through our neighborhood, which was very unusual. They were jumping fences and barking loudly. It was later shown that signals in the range .01–.5 Hz rose to exceptionally high levels about three hours before the earthquake. The dogs in Fremont knew something was about to happen late that afternoon!

Yes, it can happen to you!

Lessons Learned in the Northern California Power Outage

  • Carry Cash – ATMs and Credit Cards don’t work when the power is out.
  • Get out of the disaster area – Don’t stick around and become part of the problem.
  • Keep extra food, protein bars, nuts, trail mix and water on hand.
  • Don’t let the gas tank drop below 1/2. Gas stations were all closed due to no power.
  • Radio and television stations were off the air – so no news. This was before the Internet.
  • You could make local calls, but all telephone service in and out of California was cut off.

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