The Great Earthquake at Loma Prieta

I Was There, October 17th 1989

EarthSourceMedia October 17th, 2008

A group of the downtrodden lay in the grass at what is generally known as ‘ground zero for the free speech movement’, Peoples Park of Berkeley, California. It was nineteen years ago today, October 17th, 1989. At 3:30 in the afternoon, stale, windless air left the fronds of palms drooping straight down, like wet wash on a clothesline. The heat was a force, making it hard to breathe, and I remember saying, “This is earthquake weather”.

An hour later, I emerged from a local church-turned-soup-kitchen, where a guy down on his luck could get his one fair meal a day for a quarter, prompting the locals to dub it the ‘quarter meal’. The heat was still on, though the shadows had grown a bit long. Outside the old brick building on Piedmont Avenue, my dog Misty, rest her soul, sprang up, tail wagging, her one good eye bright at the sight of me.

We crossed the street, and headed down towards our self-appointed job playing guitar for change outside of a Mrs. Fields Cookie store on Telegraph Avenue, the owners of which were always happy at the extra money my blues licks brought in- a 20% increase, I was told. But Misty and I never quite made it that far. As we reached the other side of the street, Misty cowered down and began barking in her round-mouthed ‘I’m spooked’ kind of a way, incessant, woo-woo-woo…I flashed a quick look about and saw nothing amiss. “Whats-a-matter, girl?”

 That’s when the first wave came, the Earth rolling beneath my feet like incoming waves at Coney Island. I never dreamed the Earth would betray me so! ‘Hissss!’ went the tall chain-link fence that circled the asphalt ball field atop the parking structure. And ‘Hissss!’ it went again as a second wave rushed beneath our unsteady feet. I later learned that this one, the ‘Loma Prieta’ Earthquake, named for the fault which spawned her, was a ‘roller’, referring to the type of Earth movement involved.

‘Woo-woo-woo!’ went Misty, justifiably agitated by the earthly, yet somehow unearthly events.

Two screaming young students ran for their cars, parked beneath the now tottering structure, and I yelled to them, “Don’t go under there!” We all looked up in time to see the tall pencil-like skyscraper dorms across the way waving in a willy nilly fashion, threatening to fall on us. The screams went on until fear overcame good sense and the girls ran under the parking structure, started their cars and drove wildly off toward Telegraph Avenue.

Misty and I stood a moment, staring off toward Berkeley Marina in the direction of San Franciso. It was all quite downhill, affording me an Eagles perch, the first of two surreal scenes to come. This time, thick black smoke began rising in the far distance, origin unknown, as all manner of alarms, bells honks and grunts began an auditory assault, coalescing into a devilish symphony.

The immediate danger passed, we made our way downtown, through Peoples Park to Telegraph Avenue, where we encountered the second surreal scene, straight from a sci-fi disaster movie, etched in my mind for all of my days. The city had come to a sudden and complete standstill- cars sat strewn about the intersection facing many directions, all stopped and lacking the drivers that might further guide them.

I joined a large crowd that now encircled one car, a tarnished gold something-or-other, which sat in the center of a usually busy intersection. Atop this car sat a worn-out ghetto-blaster, stains of spackle attesting to its many hours on the jobsite. It had become as a fire around which we gathered, having ourselves suddenly become modern cave-people.

For lack of all that was familiar, the large group stood rapt around the worn radio as it chattered off info no one wanted to hear..

“The Mission District is on fire, the Bay Bridge has collapsed, stay in your homes, turn off the gas, World Series play has been stopped on the field; remain calm, the 880 Nimitz Freeway has fallen, many cars reported to be trapped beneath…”

And on and on it went.

I kept scanning the crowd for their curious expressions, their reactions, perhaps measuring the state of my own condition by them. We were ok, I knew that much, but it was more than I could say for everyone. Many died. Many were hurt. And tthough the poor folks in the park lost no property, homes or belongings, we all did lose something that day in October 1989. We lost a sense of peace-of-mind, and the surety that Mother Earth will always be our benevolent nanny.

Giant chunks of space-borne nickel-iron have other cares than the fate of mankind, as they spin their way around the giant clock of the Milky Way. Our destiny is our own, and the great time-keeper resets that clock for no one. And I was there. October 17th, at 5:04PM, 1989.

Dedicated to all who lost their lives in the Loma Prieta earthquake and the heroes who tried to save them.

Joey Racano    

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