I can still vividly remember the moment it happened. The rest of my memories from that day are just fragments, little bursts of images strung together.
At 5:04 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 1989, I was sitting into the second-to-last row of the upper deck at Candlestick Park with my mom. We were getting ready to watch the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s – my preferred team as a 9-year-old – play in Game 3 of the World Series.
If I close my eyes, I can remember it so clearly: The terror I felt while gripping the armrest of my seat as we were jolted back and forth, the sound like a train roaring down the tracks. When it stopped, we were uninjured; but as it turned out, that moment changed the course of my life.
This might sound weird, but I’m a sports writer because of an earthquake.
(Above: A picture taken from the upper deck walkway on the way up to our seats. Note the clock says 4:50 p.m.; the earthquake hit 14 minutes later.)
I grew up in Los Altos, Calif. – about 40 miles south of San Francisco – and would go to both Giants and A’s games with my dad. But I preferred the A’s, because they had the “Bash Brothers” (Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco), a nickname which was appealing to a kid.
My dad somehow scored World Series tickets from his boss, but he had to fly to Japan on business. That left my mom – who had never been to a game at Candlestick – to take me to the World Series.
We got to the game pretty early, and I remember the excitement of pulling into the stadium parking lot. The Giants’ theme song that year was “I Feel Good,” and it played on the car radio; because of what happened later, it still triggers a brief second of nervousness for me today.
My mom and I got to our nosebleed seats, and settled in for the game. How could we have known we’d never see a single pitch? I pulled out my pencil and program to keep score, but the tip was broken; I pleaded with my mom to let me go buy a new one by myself, but she said no — we could go together later. I’m glad she refused, because we would have been separated at a bad time.
That’s when it happened.
My mom doesn’t remember this, but right before it hit, I looked up to the right — in the direction of the Bay — and saw a flock of birds suddenly flying over the stadium, shrieking. Then the rumbling started – like rolling thunder at first, then like a jumbo jet taking off. Our seats began shifting from side to side – hard.
I couldn’t tell you how long it lasted – it seemed like forever. I just remember wanting it to stop. It was a rough one — being up high in the upper deck probably didn’t help — and it really tossed me around in my seat.
In writing this post, I asked my mom what she remembers from that moment. At first, she thought everyone in the stadium started stomping their feet.
“I put my arm around you,” she said. “I looked over your shoulder and where the stadium (roof) met, there were two walls that came together at a 45 degree angle — and they were moving in complete opposite directions back and forth.”
Then it slowed down — CHUG, CHUG, chug, chug, chug — and stopped. Strangely, everyone burst into cheers. My mom remembers jubilant people raising their fists up to the sky in triumph. It was like: Heck yeah! Now let’s get this game started!
We didn’t share their enthusiasm for the game. My mom wanted to get downstairs as quickly as possible — was the stadium going to collapse? — so we excused ourselves past the people remaining in their seats and headed for an escalator.
The power was out, but hundreds of people were still streaming up to their seats — we had to squeeze past everyone to reach ground level. The game wasn’t canceled yet; maybe we thought the quake was worse than it was?
My mom spotted a couple guys with boom boxes listening to the radio, and we gathered around to hear the news reports. After realizing the earthquake was pretty serious, my mom decided we should leave.
We walked out of the stadium gates and ran into two guys who asked my mom if we were going to use our ticket stubs as a rain check to come back. At the time, my mom either didn’t realize the significance of the stubs or just figured there was no way we’d return even if it were somehow rescheduled. Anyway, she gave our tickets away.
Someone else in the parking lot asked us if we’d heard the news: The Bay Bridge had just collapsed. What?! We were stunned. We hurried to the car and flipped on the car radio, which blared the Emergency Broadcast System signal – only this was not a test. My mom realized we needed to get back to my sister, who was at home with an elderly babysitter.
We didn’t have to cross the bridge to reach Los Altos, but my mom didn’t know how to get back to the highway from where we parked – and she took a wrong turn. I remember us driving through a neighborhood and looking at the glass on a bus shelter as it trembled with an aftershock.
By the time she figured out where we were, officials had called the game and we got stuck in all the traffic leaving the city. At that point, we had no communication with anyone – my sister, my dad, our other relatives and friends. Remember, this was in an era of no cell phones (yes, there was such a time).
Fortunately, we were in my dad’s car and he had a first-generation car phone, mounted in the center console with a handset. All the circuits were jammed, though, so we couldn’t call anyone.
(Above: I showed up at Candlestick Park that day to see my favorite two teams play each other. I had no idea what was about to happen.)
Peeing in the car
When the earthquake hit, my dad was in Nagano, Japan showing customers around at a Fujitsu plant. It was mid-morning there, and he got an urgent call from a co-worker.
“He said, ‘Turn on the TV, the Bay Bridge is down, the Marina District is on fire,” my dad said. “I knew you and Mom were OK because they said nobody was hurt at Candlestick. But I said, ‘Los Altos must be leveled.’ I thought Laura (my sister) was gone. I was panicked.”
He called our neighbors but couldn’t get an answer for awhile. Finally, someone picked up. They told my dad everyone in our neighborhood was fine – and that my sister was sitting in the elderly babysitter’s car in the driveway, since that’s what the woman remembered her mother doing during an earthquake in the 1930s.
My dad figured we might be in the car on the way home, so he called the car phone. It went through, much to his relief.
Mine, too. I had to pee so badly at that point, and we were stuck in standstill traffic with no end in sight. I asked my dad if it would be OK if I just peed in his car.
He said yes. What a dad! So I pissed in my pants, right there on the front seat.
When we finally pulled into our neighborhood, it was dark — no one had power — but I remember seeing people barbecuing in their front yards.
Fortunately, our house had very little damage. Everything came out of the cabinets, of course, but structurally it was OK. We got lucky compared to some of our friends; one of my classmates broke his arm when a wall fell on him as he was trying to run out of his house.
That night – and for most of that week – my sister and I slept on mattresses in our front hallway, right next to the door. I refused to go upstairs to my room or even to take a shower because I didn’t trust the ground and an aftershock could happen at any second. What if that was the one that made our house fall down?
(Above: I slept in the hallway for several days because I was too scared to go upstairs in case of an aftershock.)
That week was the first time my mom let me watch the news. And for months afterward, I was obsessed. Not only did I watch the TV news, but I listened to the all-news radio station (KCBS in San Francisco) in my room. All the time.
My dad said when we took a trip to see friends in Minneapolis a few months later, they picked us up from the airport and asked what kind of music we wanted to hear.
I asked them, “Do you have an all-news radio station here?”
That’s one part of the reason I’m in journalism today. Here’s the other: The earthquake triggered a chain of events which led me to NASCAR. This is sort of confusing, but bear with me:
1) My mom, spooked by the earthquake, told my dad that we should move to another state. She decided she couldn’t wait around for the Big One to hit. After all, the ’89 quake wasn’t the Big One – it was only a 7.1. Another one, 8.0 or larger, was predicted with a 90% chance in the next 25 years (how’d that work out?). Anyway, my dad eventually relented and we moved to Colorado.
2) Since I had only lived in Colorado for a relatively short time, I wasn’t tied down to the state for college. So I picked a school on the East Coast instead – the University of Delaware — since I figured I’d already lived in the West and (sort of) the Midwest.
3) At Delaware, a professor named Bill Fleischman encouraged me to try sports writing. I’d never thought of it before taking his class. If I hadn’t met him, I have no idea what I’d be doing today.
4) I got my first sports writing job at a small newspaper in Rocky Mount, N.C. – and my editor sent me to cover NASCAR (I’d never seen a race before that).
So to recap: If the earthquake had never happened, we would have never moved from California, I would have never gone to school and met my professor or become a sports writer and I might be a salesman or lawyer or Starbucks barista in the Bay Area instead of a NASCAR reporter living in North Carolina.
Anyway, that’s how the Loma Prieta Earthquake changed my life, 25 years ago this week.
(Above: My dad’s home office looked like a bomb went off after the earthquake. Below: Earthquake prep materials spooked our family into moving from California.)