Tragedy and the Best of Us

We had another small earthquake up here in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was 4.5, large enough to rattle me awake and cause my metal Hello Kitty charms to wave on their stand, making a creepy “clinky clinky” sound. This one sort of rolled and lasted in my mind, a long time. The one we had earlier this month was a single hard jolt. Both of these scared the crap out of me, but the one last night lasted long enough to cause me to get out of bed, throw on some clothes and boots, grab glasses and phone, and wonder where Crazy Legs got to. Chris is on his own, he’s a human, he knows what’s up.

Anyway, my brother-in-law was kind enough to remind me that the quake last night happened three days before the 30th anniversary of Loma Prieta, aka, “The ’89 Quake.” I mean, I would have put that together using my superior counting skills but still, that was a bit of a punch. I remember it, of course, and like everyone in who experienced it, we all have a story to tell.

I still lived in Fremont with my ex-husband. We, like so many others, this is important later, sat down to watch the World Series, Oakland A’s vs. San Francisco Giants, affectionately known as the Bay Bridge Series. (The Bay Bridge runs from Oakland to San Francisco, that’s important later too.)

I lived in a fairly typical suburban apartment, outside entrances, two stories, we were on the second, and the buildings formed a square around a pool.

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In defiance of all logic, I have a picture of that apartment, looking out the kitchen window, the pool down by the lights, Mission Peak in the distance, obligatory 1980s crystals hanging proudly.

The game hadn’t started yet when the couch shook. We had a pendulum light above the table which we, and every Californian with a swinging device, looked at as sort of a poor man’s Richter Scale. It was swinging, so we sat in cat-like readiness and then, wham! it hit. It was powerful and seemed to last forever. We bolted to the door, got down the stairs in about two hops, and huddled up with all our neighbors. I mentioned a pool earlier. One of the clearest memories I have at that point is a mini-tsunami happening, large waves on either side left the pool about ¾ empty. It was utterly surreal and beyond creepy.

After a while we went back in. We still had electricity, so we turned on the news. I remember a newscaster reporting with nothing but a single bulb light, and then we saw two things I will never forget and will never leave my heart.

While it did look like San Francisco was burning to the ground (they kept showing the same footage over and over, my friends elsewhere were terrified) what hit hard were the Bay Bridge and the Cypress Structure.

An entire section of the bridge collapsed, stopping on the bottom deck. The bridge was replaced a mere 24 years later. Yes, that is completely unacceptable.

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But what sticks out for me, what has now become local lore, is the collapse of the Cyprus Freeway and the local response to it. I won’t describe any of the deaths, you can look it up if you like, because this isn’t about gory details, it’s about the people in the area who came to help, regular people with no training and no reason not to simply run the other way, but chose to run toward the as yet not understood danger, carrying their ladders they use to wash their windows, paint their houses, or any number of mundane things, put them up against the freeway and start trying to save the people trapped inside.

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See, the Cyprus was a double-decker freeway, and the top simply pancaked down. When my ex-husband and I watched, and realized what had happened, and saw the smoke coming from the inside of the two huge layers, we just cried. It was too much. But these amazing people, this happened on the Oakland side, they didn’t flinch, they didn’t pause to wonder, they simply went and helped and surely saw gruesome things. I cannot, I literally cannot, comprehend the bravery and selflessness that took.

Oh, I mentioned the importance of the World Series. Normally at that time, there would have been far more cars, but because of the World Series, people left work early or stayed home. That’s something to be thankful for, I suppose.

For us, life went on as normal. We lost a couple glasses, but there was no other damage. The pool was refilled, the building inspected, we didn’t lose anyone, so we got off easy. I am very aware of that.

San Francisco was not burned to the ground and was quickly rebuilt. Our flag is a phoenix rising from flames, so we are no stranger to this.

sf flag

Which makes me wonder, when does a terrifying tragedy become a proudly told legend? I have to pause when I realize ’89 was 30 years ago, so there are people with 10-year-old children for whom this is a legend. So we tell these stories, like I just did, as if we were telling a story of adventure to the grandchildren, regaling them with tales of survival that have become nearly romantic.

San Francisco had a famous disaster in 1906, imaginatively named “The ’06 Quake and Fire.” I expect a good number of you know about this, but for locals, especially those of us with family who survived, this is a point of pride, both for the family connection, which shows deep roots in the City, and also the fortitude of the survivors who rebuilt and moved on from a far worse disaster than ’89.

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For the record, my Grandmother was 5 at the time and remembered it pretty well. I’ve written about that before so I won’t go into it here too much.

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Grandma is on the bottom, Belle Chapin. The name may sound familiar.

Every year there is a commemoration at Lotta’s Fountain at the exact moment it hit, 5:12 a.m. Because of the who-the-hell-is-up-at-that-ridiculous-hour time, I had never been, but in 2006 on the 100th anniversary, Chris and I did go. Standing in the giant crowd, waiting for the clock to hit the witching hour, a man turned to me and said “Survivor?” I knew instantly what he meant, did I have a family member in the quake. When I said yes, we started telling our stories and became a cluster of wide-eyed people eager to tell our tales. Unfortunately Chris, being from Houston, was quickly moved aside.

“After the 1906 earthquake, dazed survivors looked for anything left standing to congregate around. Lotta’s Fountain served as a meeting place for people to be reunited with their loved ones.”

The Loma Prieta Quake, (Loma Prieta was the fault that broke) is 30 years old on October 17, 2019. It is not the distant past, not to me, but to some, it is just a story told by the – ahem – older people and photos and video and one extremely unfortunate movie. It is books and horror and stories that will break the hardest heart.

But do you know what it is for me? What I try to hang on to? A story that I’m happy to say gets nearly equal time?

Those people in Oakland who risked their lives and mental health by climbing into the collapsed freeway and speaking kindly to strangers and as gently as possible getting them out of the cars to safety. Those people are true heroes, those people are the best of us. Disasters do bring out the best in us, most of the time.

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I have no idea if I would have been one of the brave. I hope I never have to find out. When the footage came on, all I could do was cry, there was nothing I could do to help. And maybe that was part of it, feeling helpless. Maybe it’s just because I was a sheltered 21-year-old suburban girl with little sense, and went on with my life very quickly.

Maybe if I’d been there, I would have helped in some way. I like to think so. But until I’m in a situation like that, I can’t say. Even now as a 51-year-old City girl with a lot of scars, I really can’t say.

We don’t have to wait until the next Big One, or whatever natural disaster your world is prone to, we can be the best of us right now. Even some small gesture, to your own abilities, can make a world of difference.

In the meantime, I would very much appreciate it if the Ring of Fire just settled the hell down.

 

Here are some resources for disaster preparedness. Stay safe everyone!

Ready – Disaster Preparedness

Red Cross

 

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