The biggest earthquake to hit California in decades struck the San Francisco Bay Area on Oct. 17, 1989, just as Game 3 of the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics was about to start.
What many people remember about the Loma Prieta earthquake often begins with televised coverage of the World Series in the Bay Area.
Union Sports Editor Barry Lorge was in Candlestick Park that night, and he wrote about his experience in the next day’s newspaper.
From The San Diego Union, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 1989:
After the Candlestick shaking, aftershocks of the mind
By Barry Lorge, Sports Editor
Sometimes the magnitude of an earthquake does not register on the imagination as quickly as it does on a seismograph.
For those of us in the upper deck of Candlestick Park at 5:04 p.m. yesterday, awaiting the third game of the “Bay Bridge World Series,” whose nickname will be recalled with grim irony, there were a few initial seconds of stark terror.
But it was several minutes before we realized the extent of the temblor that had just shaken us, and only over the ensuing hours did we learn how damaging the 6.9 quake had been, and how much worse it could have been.
I was seated in an auxiliary press box in the stands, perhaps 10 rows below the top rim of the 62,000-seat ballpark by the bay —roughly halfway between San Francisco International Airport and downtown San Francisco, 20 miles north on Route 101.
As the Oakland A’s and San Francisco Giants loosened up on the field of dreams below, half an hour before the scheduled first pitch, the concrete beneath us began to vibrate violently. It went simultaneously up and down and sideways, not unlike the sensation of the start of a carnival loop-the-loop ride.
This lasted perhaps five seconds, but the mind magnified it into an eternity.
A few terrified people started to rush for the exits, but most heeded the warning over the stadium public address system to exit calmly.
It seemed that everyone realized at once that it was time to get out, but the departing throng was orderly.
I made my way through the parking lot where people were milling and murmuring. Fans with portable radios were beginning to get reports that a span of the Bay Bridge had collapsed and there was extensive damage from the South Bay to Berkeley, and probable fatalities.
There was no panic except in people’s voices. “It’s horrible!” shouted one fan with his ear to a transistor. “A big one.”
I was able to hitchhike a ride to my hotel near the airport with two men in a gray Honda Accord — Steve Nichols and Dave Cavin — who said they were going to drive south on Route 101, past the airport, to San Mateo.
“We were sitting on the trunk of the car in the parking lot, tailgating, when it started shaking,” said Nichols. “I thought Dave was bouncing up and down. I said ‘Cut that out, you’ll ruin the springs.’
“But then I saw that all the cars in the lot were moving up and down, swaying at least a foot and a half.
“The girl next to me — I’ve never seen her in my life — grabbed me like it was her last hug. She was shaking, scared to death.
“I heard what I thought were sirens. It was the alarms in a lot of cars going off at once.”
As we inched our way (10 miles) south, we listened to the car radio and my battery-operated, mini-TV. Gradually the scope of the quake began to dawn on us, though details were fuzzier than the picture on my two-inch screen.
Cavin and Nichols described what they had seen.
“There’s a catwalk over the roadway leading into the stadium and they closed it immediately. There were cracks,” said Cavin.
“But I’ve lived here all my life, and been through a lot of quakes and I didn’t think it was that bad until I started seeing and hearing about the damage.
“Steve’s father-in-law came running out of the stadium and his eyes were as big as plates. He said, ‘They ought to evacuate right now in case there are aftershocks.’ Kids were crying. It started to hit me what could have happened. I have a lot of friends in that stadium. We all could have been killed.
“People complain about Candlestick; thank God it held.”
Nichols’ wife works for the Giants in group sales.
“She decided not to come tonight and gave me the tickets,” he said. “Women’s intuition.”
The radio warned of fallen power lines on Route 101. An eyewitness said, “It looked like they were exploding in blue-and-white light. It looked like World War III.”
We saw no such scenes. But a convoy of motorcycles and police cars roared past, sirens blaring. The cycles had A’s and Giants banners flying from handlebars, reminding us how weird and unexpected this journey was.
The radio asked all off-duty police, fire and emergency and medical personnel to report to work immediately.
“It’s nice to know that disaster preparedness seems to be working,” Cavin said. “But just think if the roads were closed.”
The radio said there were reports of crushed cars and deaths on the Bay Bridge and possibly people in the water.
“I have a boat up by the stadium,” said Cavin, who owns a windsurfing supply store. “I feel like I should get up there and try to help people. But something like this makes you feel helpless.”
The radio said the epicenter was south of Santa Cruz.
“I have a big project down there,” said Nichols, a general contractor. “I hope it’s still standing. I hope the buildings with people in them are still standing.”
Soon enough we learned that structures had collapsed all over. The aftershocks of the mind were setting in.
We arrived at my hotel just as police were shutting the access road. Power and telephones were out. In the fading daylight I reached my room. The lamps were all on the floor, the drawers hanging from the dressers.
On the tiny TV, Dan Rather was reporting in ominous tones. A local San Francisco station cut in with a report that part of the Amfac Hotel — two doors down from the Ramada Inn where I was staying — had collapsed. I grabbed my phone and ran there.
People filled the parking lot. Half a dozen fire and police vehicles were there, but a fireman said the people who had been injured had already been taken to ambulances and hospitals.
The top center section of the building, where an elevator shaft appeared to have been, was gutted by fire and twisted. All the glass was broken.
As the sun set, stunned survivors wandered the Amfac parking lot, some of them drawn to my TV set, wondering how much damage had occurred elsewhere. A report came that the airport was closed and the roof of one terminal had collapsed.
After numerous attempts, I finally got through to San Diego on my cellular phone, dictating this report by flashlight as a manager of the hotel tried to account for his guests, floor-by-floor.
By now, the magnitude of the tragedy — and the shuddering thought of how much worse it could have been — had registered clearly on the Richter scale of my brain.