At 5:04 PM on October 17, 1989, the earth shook. The San Andreas fault, one of California’s and the world’s most infamous fault lines, shifted violently beneath the Loma Prieta peak in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The force of the shift resulted in a 6.9 magnitude earthquake that sent shockwaves throughout California and, most notably, the densely populated San Francisco Bay Area.
The damage was extensive. In Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties, the shaking destroyed communities. In San Francisco and Oakland, the quake turned foundations and soil into liquid, swallowing homes and rupturing gas lines in the Marina district and sparking numerous fires in the city. A section of the Bay Bridge’s upper deck toppled to the lower deck, and a mile-long stretch of the upper portion of the I-880 freeway in Oakland pancaked onto the lower roadway.
The Bay Area had long been known as a high-risk area to earthquakes. It is part of the city’s history and character. However, the timing of this quake was unique. At this time the Bay Area was on a national stage as the Oakland A’s and cross town rival San Francisco Giants battled each other for Major Leagues Baseball’s World Series title! As a nationwide audience tuned in for Game 3 of the Series, they witnessed history…
In the end, 63 people lost their lives and more than 3,700 were injured in the Loma Prieta earthquake. More than 12,000 homes and 2,600 businesses were damaged in the quake, which was the largest the Bay Area had experienced since the devastating quake of 1906. At an estimated cost of more than $6 billion, the Loma Prieta quake was one of the costliest disasters in U.S. history at the time.
Share Your Story
It was one of those moments frozen in time, and many of us will never forget where we were or what we were doing when the quake struck. We have asked people to share their memories of the day and here is what they’ve had to say…
“I was at home in the East Bay waiting for the Series game to start when the earthquake struck. I didn’t think much of it, until I tried to turn on the TV and got no reception. When I turn on the radio, they said the Bay Bridge had collapsed. The TV came on minutes later with a very shaken (literally and figuratively) news person reporting on the quake. My friend was coming over to watch the game and I knew that her route included the Cypress structure which had collapsed. I did not know she was safe until the next day. The Cypress collapse was near Children’s Hospital and several of the staff heroically tried to save people. The neighborhood surrounding the structure pitched in to help as well. For days, rescue operations continued for the people trapped in the Cypress collapse. I had a friend who was at Candlestick for the game who said that the stadium rolled back and forth so that you could see the cars in the parking lot popping up and down like popcorn. I remember thinking that the casualties on the Cypress structure would have multiplied geometrically if people had not left work early to watch the game.” – Virginia Hart, Red Cross Bay Area volunteer
“I was living in Gilroy at the time and was at the library picking up my kids from day care. They were 8 and 3 at the time. I was talking with my friend when we heard the sound of what we thought was a semi-truck about to run through the building. As the seconds ticked away the sound became like 20 locomotives racing right next to you, and then came the shaking. It was so hard and so fast you barely had time to grab onto anything. I reached around to grab my kids and they were GONE!!! Talk about frantic!! Then the bookshelves started falling over everywhere – there was nowhere to go. I could hear my daughter screaming and I had visions of her being trapped under some bookcase and I was trying to walk/run towards her voice, looking like a drunk trying to walk straight. I finally found her in the bathroom sitting on the toilet in pitch black! My son had taken her to the restroom and did not tell me. When the shaking started he left her in there and ran outside!! I finally gathered up my kids and went home to find a huge mess. It took me almost 6 hours to clean everything up. There were broken glasses, dishes, TVs turned over, a glass Curio cabinet fell and everything inside broke. The kitchen cabinets flew open and on the kitchen floor was a messy combination of oil, vinegar, sugar, flour, honey, spaghetti sauce, etc. Each aftershock felt almost as bad as the original quake and was just as scary. We didn’t get much sleep that night and it took a year before my daughter would go to the bathroom by herself. As for me, I will NEVER forget that sound. I’ve never heard anything so loud in my life and I used to live about 8 houses away from the el trains in New York City! Whenever I hear the sound of a very loud truck or feel the slightest shaking of the ground for whatever reason, I freeze – it puts me right back to that day at the library.” - Marge Gumataotao, Red Cross of Northeastern California
“I was 8 and was in my room in San Jose when everything started shaking and everything in the shelves of my closet was falling down. I remember making my way to the hallway and my dad and I were staring at each other while the house continued to shake. After that, all I remember is watching the news and trying to get through to family in the Bay Area, and I remember the aftershocks which seemed to go on forever.” – Adam Ambrozy
“I was 12 years old living in Sacramento and was racing my bike home to watch the game. Before I could turn on the TV, my mom called asking if I had felt an earthquake and if I was okay. I thought that was a crazy idea, but I told her I didn’t feel anything and now I was late watching the game. I hung up the phone, turned on the TV, and history unfolded in front of me. I will never forget it.” – Jordan Scott, Red Cross Capital Region
“I had just left my house to go pick my mom up at Rockbridge Bart. My car started to rock from side to side and at first I thought I had a flat. The radio cut to static. Then I noticed the cars around me were rocking too. Not a flat… Some construction workers nearby were trying not to fall down. I got to bart and waited for an hour. The radio came back to life and said bart wasn’t running, so I went back home to wait for news of my mom’s whereabouts. An hour or so later, my aunt called from Oregon to let us know mom was okay, couldn’t call across the Bay, but could call out of state. She got home at about 2 a.m. after driving across the Golden Gate and Richmond bridges. The quake hit right as she was stepping down into an underground bart station in SF. She was able to turn right back around and go back up the stairs and back to work. Our cat disappeared for 3 days. My brother was at Cal [Berkeley] at one of the fields and said that from up above in the stands, the field was rolling.” – Epsi Ping
“I was living in Southern California and turned on the TV to watch the World Series. I remember standing there, stunned, staring at the Cypress section of the freeway and saying “that’s a double decker.” A friend of mine pointed out that it looked fine because she was only looking at the ground level and the level above, which were both intact. I had to tell her no, there was another level above that which was now gone. My older brother was at Candlestick that night – it took him seven hours to get back to Sacramento because of the collapsed section on the Bay Bridge.” – Kris Kirkpatrick, Red Cross Capital Region
“I was in Walnut Creek at the Contra Costa Times. My office was directly above the presses. I thought, “Wow, they sure are running the presses hard tonight!” – Chris Raynes
“In Sacramento. My first ever earthquake. Went immediately to the old Chapter and waited to get our orders. Sent to Santa Cruz. Remember that was when there was no power, no cellphones or gps and flatly couldn’t see anything but an occasional blinking traffic sawhorse letting us know we had to detour. Slept the first few nights in the ERV [Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicle], and the windows rattled every time there was an aftershock.” – Sandy Stultz, Red Cross volunteer
“I was working at a large hotel, and trying to maintain a sense of order for the hotel guests. Didn’t work very well, a lot of them ran out into the parking lot!” – Angie Marulo
“My family was in our second year of a four year stint of living in Washington, DC area. My experience was as a Californian living out of state; I was 33 and husband, Michael was 37. Michael was the then-Governors (Dukemejian and Wilson) Washington DC California Representative on Environmental Issues. Michael was in California on that day meeting with the Governor’s office. When the quake hit he was at the Sacramento Hyatt. The quake was felt in Sacramento! I didn’t know about the event until I awoke in the morning and saw the TV news reports. Unfortunately, by the time I heard the news it was impossible to get through on the telephone because of excessive communication traffic. Emotional chaos ensued because my husband was in California for a meeting, and ALL of my sibling and family live in the San Francisco area! I was freaked out not knowing if everyone was okay. Two days went by before Michael was able to get a flight home to DC. Even though I was’t there, I felt for the people who lost their lives, who were injured, and the devastation the earthquake left in its wake. That event reinforced the fact that my heart is, and always will be, tied to California.” – JoAnne Byrne
“I was living in Daly City at the time and the San Andreas Fault ran directly beneath our house. I was in our den watching Silver Spoons. The TV started to shake and I thought to myself ‘no big deal, just another earthquake.’ Then it kept going and the TV fell off of the entertainment center. I bolted down the hallway to find my Nana. She told me to get under the dining room table, which I did. Then our China cabinet came flying open and crystal glasses shattered all over the floor and landed on my legs. My papa was in Sonoma at our other house. It seemed like days before we heard from him. The phones were not working and that was before technology was abundant. The dark ages.” – Nicole Howe
“So, unbelievably I was in my office on the tenth floor of a high rise in Canoga Park (town in the San Fernando Valley just north of L.A.). We didn’t feel anything, but we noticed that the hanging lights started swaying back and forth. Minutes later we got the news that there had been a big earthquake in the Bay Area. Never would have thought that the impact could have traveled so far – but it did!” – Gary Strong, Red Cross Board Member, CFO of Sacramento Bee
“I was 10, living in Daly City, too. At the time I was on the 3rd floor of the Kaiser Building. My Mom had left me at my appointment and gone downstairs to get a prescription. As it started to shake the doctor told me it was an earthquake and we stood in the door, with me hugging him and him putting his arms over me in the doorway to protect me. As I looked out the window, the road was moving in waves and the cars were bouncing around like they were floating on the rocking ocean. It was bizarre. My Mom stepped off the elevators as the shaking started and ran into our doorway with us. Thankfully because, if I recall, some people were stuck in elevators for days!” – Allison Duggan
“I was still in my office in San Carlos when it started. Almost all the staff was gone because of the game. I was sitting with my back to the windows so got up and moved to the doorway where I had to hold on to both sides of the doorways. Of course I was thinking, “Is this IT, the big one?” Right outside the office door was a bank of file cabinets and when the quake shook, all the drawers opened and the cabinets almost tipped over. Then it would shake the other way and the drawers rolled shut with a loud bang. After the first waved stopped we saw the plate glass windows on the store across the street had broken out and a man from the other side of the building ran over and said the Bay Bridge had collapsed. I didn’t believe him and said as much but we all headed home to make sure our families were okay. Scary times. I was suppose to leave on a business trip the next day but of course didn’t. We had 36 branch banks in various stages of hurt but all staff were safe because of the game luring them all home early. We spent the evening and next day making sure all employees and families were safe, then we assessed the building damages. Head office and computer facilities were all okay and we started working on offices. One office we had to get the vault door cut off because the safety deposit boxes fell over and sealed the inner door shut. But everyone was safe except one senior officer’s wife who broke her wrist carrying her baby to safety. I’ll never forget that time.” – Gayle Wigglesworth
“October 17, 1989 sticks out in my mind for a few reasons – first and foremost, as a 10 year old boy, there were two things that my world centered around: my father and baseball. So that night as we sat down to celebrate my father’s birthday and watch the A’s and Giants continue their Battle of the Bay, I was awestruck when the earthquake hit and our phone started ringing off the hook! My father was a gas service representative for PG&E and he was being called out to assist with restoration efforts in Watsonville. For the next three weeks my father and his colleagues worked around the clock conducting welfare checks, appliance checks and restoring gas service to communities impacted by the earthquake. Although I missed my father, I knew what he was doing served a far greater purpose than pitching batting practice to me and my friends. This became all the more apparent when he returned home sharing photos, stories and letters with us that the crews received from residents, community leaders and those impacted by the earthquake. Seeing firsthand the genuine concern and compassion that [people] had for others was a life changing event for me and it was then that I started to think about what more could I do to make a difference in our communities.” – Nick Glero, Red Cross Board Member, PG&E Manager of Customer Care (Stockton)
And don’t forget to register for ShakeOut, the Loma Prieta-inspired earthquake drill coming up this Thursday, October 16 at 10:16 AM!