Tuesday, November 22, 2005

the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake

My old roommate bill lives in Vietnam, teaching English these days... they just had an earthquake and asked if I'd describe again for him and his class the story of the San Francisco quake of 89:

-----On October 18th, 1989, the ground, and everything else the Bay Area knew, shook. And shook a lot. The day started like many others had, bright and sunny, turning to slightly overcast - definitely nothing out of the ordinary for San Francisco. I was living off campus at the time, having been kicked out of the dorms the semester before for being one of two unfortunate late night revelers caught and then scapegoated for a massive party my floor had thrown wherein every inch of every wall of every corridor had been magic markered, penned, spray-painted and I do believe, even pizza-smeared. Exiled as I was, most of my friends still lived in the dorms and so, after a completely unmemorable Psych class and no more classes slated for the day, I went down to the Verducci Hall dorm building where all my former dorm mates now lived. As luck, or the lives of slacker college students go, my four friends who shared a suite were all there so we all sat around and talked and smoked, probably wasting time, I'm now guessing, until dinner time rolled around and we could dine on oh-so deliciously fine cafeteria fare.
-----5:04pm. Friends and girlfriends and friends who were girlfriends sat enjoying conversation and the relief that no more classroom obligations for the day brings when my feet began to... vibrate a bit. Strange, it's awfully late in the day to be feeling a nicotine rush from smoking. pause. more vibration. I looked up and saw that two of three conversations in the room had stopped. Pete and I made eye contact. Neither of us had a look of panic showing but something in the questioning look we shared, and then saw on everyone else's faces seemed to signal the start of something very serious.
-----Someone said "Earthquake" a little more flatly than I might have expected. In an instant, everyone was standing. In another instant, the vibrations we'd felt became shaking. One more instant and it had turned to violent shaking and the sounds of cracking drywall. The looks we shot each other changed from urgent concern to near panic and even, later on, to a frantic and unaccepting acknowledgement that our 19 year old bodies might soon be one with the cracking walls we were watching come apart from their load bearing frames.
-----Doorways. What do you do in an earthquake? Californians pretty much grow up knowing that in the event of an earthquake, you get into a doorway. The funny thing about doorways though is that they dont accommodate 5 people trying to stand in them. There were 7 people in the room and 3 doorways to stand in. Everyone in the room was closest to two of them so naturally we all tried to first cram into one, then we split to two and before we all split equally between the three doorways, for what couldn't have been any longer than a second and a half, my friend Chase and I looked at each other and laughed out loud a giddy, nerve-racked laugh at the musical-doorways game we were in the middle of playing. And maybe a chuckle or two more at the fact that we were laughing right before we were probably going to die.
-----From the bathroom doorway, I watched the walls crack and flex as the building twisted and contorted in ways I have only ever seen Jello move. It seems that in the 1960's and 70's architects thought that a building built on "rollers" would damped the swaying motion of an earthquake the way a circus hobo standing on a plank and balancing on a barrel, rocking back and forth can maintain equilibrium (note to writers: whenever possible, incorporate circus hobos into your stories). Instead, the actual effect that occurs is one of amplification of the earthquake's force as the height of a building increases. Being that we were in a 12 story building, and being that we were on the 5th floor of said building - we were in the middle of the "twisting zone" as the building rocked 3 feet North and then 3 back South. Ohh, but the lessons in physics didn't stop there. Being that the Northeast corner of the building sat over former landfill and being that the direction of the magnitude 7.2 strike-slip quake's shock wave was at a slight angle to the building we were in, the motion was actually more 3 feet north with a 1-2 foot twist East and then a 3 foot south motion with a 1-2 foot twist West back. Contorting. Twisting. And shaking. As you might guess, buildings aren't meant to experience such such perturbations, even under the worst case scenarios. Drywall cracked and crumbled, the creases of walls split along their seams in an almost Hollywood special effects fashion.
-----And then there was the sound. Good lord, the sound did not help the anxiety level in that building that day. How do you describe a building trying to twist itself free of everything but it's most rigid, underlying structure? We watched the constructional carnage while trying to keep bathroom and bedroom doorways from violently slamming into us and in some ways, maybe just in retrospect, were a bit in awe of the ridiculous force of this event. Panic looks raced around the room and every so often made their way outside where the view of relatively immobile trees gave a frightening perspective on how much the building was really twisting and swaying.
-----I saw Chase looking outside and hoping that, at least for an instant, looking outside would be better than looking inside, I looked outside. The body that fell past the balcony seemed to indicate it wasn't. Again, Chase and I looked back at each other, both of us now were ghostly white. That was it. I was through with it. I didn't want to be there anymore. Not even a little bit. And yet it all continued, the swaying, the shaking, the dust of shattered drywall making itself airborne, the sound. Ohh, the sound. And again, the image of being a small messy part of a very large pile of rubble came to mind. Furniture sliding too and fro, chairs too near to our doorways banging into us, books and things on shelves no longer on the shelves, shelves no longer on the walls.
-----And then, without any dramatic mark to note the change, the shaking lessened, the twisting and contorting motion of the building subsided. The slamming doorways slammed a little less forcefully. The screams however, continued. 12 stories of frightened, injured and panicked college students..
-----The major shaking done, we hurriedly made our way for the stairwells where we saw more signs of the damage - drywall covering the stairs and landings, split seams in the walls and dust covering every inch of everything else. The evacuation was remarkably ordered as I dont really remember any screaming or yelling in the stairway descent out. What I do remember is legs so sapped of energy they barely carried me down the stairs. I saw it in everyone else exiting with me - endorphin drained exhaustion. Obviously, in 49 seconds time, we hadn't done much that was physical strenuous or draining but our shaking limbs and near powerless muscles were showing all the signs to the contrary.
-----When we made it to the street, we gathered around a school representative giving out as much news as he had and instructions while trying to answer questions and keep everyone calm. "We do not know when you'll be allowed to return to your rooms", "at this time, we do not have other accomodations for you but you may head to the gym", "some of you mentioned see someone fall from the North side balconies - this was a mannequin and not a person, repeat: it was not a person, it was a mannequin", "we do not know when classes will resume".
-----And so it went. The Cyprus Freeway had fallen, a span of the Bay Bridge had too, the Marina district was on fire. Televisions reported, people watched and listened and braced for aftershocks. Being the only the only one of my friends living off campus, we piled into my car and went to the Sunset apartment where I was living. As we walked into my room, I saw on my coffee table, a postcard. Before leaving for the day, I had propped this postcard to stand almost vertical against a candle. This postcard was still standing in the same exact spot. Nothing in my room showed the slightest hint of disturbance. Why? The Sunset and Richmond districts sit on bedrock. Parts of SFSU and many portions of the city, namely the Marina, sit on landfill which is highly susceptible to liquefaction which of course, just makes everything even more exciting (amplified shock waves, density of ground becomes less stable, water rises to further disrupting stability, etc).
-----In the weeks and month or two that followed, most of us... and then many of us... and finally just some of us shared my small room in the Sunset. The city, I have to say, took on a wonderfully friendly and helpful vibe as people hung out on stoops and in parks and talked to neighbors like ... well, like normal people do in normal cities. There was almost a party atmosphere as the city unwound slightly. Details began to sift out from the now condemned Verducci Hall: a chef that had lived on the 12th floor was taken to the emergency room from cuts received by the flying wine bottles cast about by the shaking, a few students had broken limbs from moving furniture and swinging doors, the foundation of the building had cracked, the tennis courts below Verducci now sat in three upheaved sections, the outer walls of the building had separated from inner walls - which we all witnessed a month later when we were allowed to return in shifts (2 hours for each room) to scavenge personal belongings. Peering into other rooms through the cracked and separated walls, we could barely find a square foot of wall that didn't show some sign of damage.
-----10 years later, we returned. Not to scavenge more belongings or throw another raucous party, but to watch the building fall. Verducci had sat quiet, and unoccupied, for 10 years - a grim reminder for those who had been there and maybe the stuff of legend to those who hadn't but now lived in it's shadow. The official viewing spot was the SFSU garage building, conveniently located.. ahem.. downwind of Verducci (I have a way with foreboding, dont I?) and as we staked out spots and looked for familiar faces, we all chatted about our near death experience. Horns blew, birds scattered, rumpled sounds of primary charges reached out to us and then the big booms and flashes we've all surely seen watching footage of building demolitions. Before the clouds of billowing dust and rubble and probably asbestos overtook us, I sensed that there was the communal realization, among those who'd been in the building that October 18th at least, that this slowly tipping building before us could have tipped over 10 years ago instead. There is no way that I or anyone can accurately convey to you just how much it really felt like it was going to go at the time. And so I doubt that I was the only one who watched it fall and imagined, the whole way down, how it could have been the final resting place for us, for a lot of people.

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