Retrospectives: Loma Prieta Earthquake – 30 years on



, ,

My vested nature of today’s article is one of the most emotionally traumatized that I have written thus far, especially I have lived through perhaps the worst natural disaster when I barely made my presence in San Francisco during the time that I also watched in horror on what went on in Beijing just 4 months prior in the same bloody year, I kid you not.  I was still adjusting life in San Francisco and was treated with a rude awakening that I have otherwise heard from news reports of similar reports elsewhere in the world, and for those who have experienced a major jolt like that one on October 17, 1989, they would echo my sentiment that the whole ordeal was utterly petrified, horrified, and terrified, and it has a profound effect on your psyche for the rest of your life, along with the communities that were also affected for decades to come.  From the Interstate 880 in Oakland to Watsonville, from the Bay Bridge to Candlestick Park, the damages were immense even though the casualties were kept minimal as the result of some sorts of retrofitting and new building codes that were commenced and introduced, almost 80 people still perished with most of them occurred at the infamous Cypress Structure.  Having said that, the transformation, albeit with controversy between the battle between neighborhoods in one instance, and stringent regulations in place concerning structural engineering was immense.  

So how vested my interest on this subject? Full disclosure: I was doing my homework in the living room with a makeshift desk in the form of a coffee table when the earthquake hit at 5:04 pm on 10/17/1989.  While I wasn’t exactly a baseball fan during that period of time since I had just moved to San Francisco just almost 4 months prior on June 29, 1989 (three and a half weeks after another event occurred in Beijing on 6/4/1989, and half a year since Hillsborough Stadium disaster on 4/15/1989), and since I have no recollection whatsoever about feeling an earthquake prior to that day, it was rather frightening and terrifying as I didn’t know whether I could have survived this, much less to my cousins who were with me along with grandfather, and anyone else in my neighborhood, as well as the entire city and the Bay Area.  Almost everything that were in the corner cabinet had fallen down, and the gravity of the situation was even grimmer as there were so much damages incurred throughout the entire region.  For those of you who are living elsewhere in the world that have never felt an earthquake in your lifetime, here’s a list of all the damages that were afflicted upon and it was a doozy. 

  1. Interstate 880 double-deck freeway known as the Cyprus Viaduct collapsed had led to more than 40 people perished.
  2. A 76-by-50-foot (23 m × 15 m) section of the upper deck on the eastern cantilever side fell onto the deck below on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, with the bridge in the Oakland side shifted 7 in (18 cm) to the east and caused the bolts of one section to shear off, sending the 250-short-ton (230 t; 500,000 lbs.,; 226,800 kg) section of roadbed crashing down like a trapdoor. 
  3. Portion of the Marina District, specifically the intersection area between Beach and Divisadero Streets was engulfed in flames after dozens of buildings collapsed and ruptured the gas main the wake beneath the soils as a result of liquefaction.
  4. In the South of Market area on Sixth Street between Bluxome and Townsend, a brick facade collapsed onto the sidewalk and street resulted in five deaths.
  5. Pacific Garden Mall, along with the entire downtown area in Santa Cruz, were severely damaged included 7 of 31 buildings had been listed in the Santa Cruz Historic Building Survey, three people were killed by fallen debris.  In addition, nearby towns near Santa Cruz have also been damaged with some were knocked off of their foundations.
  6. Cabrillo Highway at the Struve Slough Bridge in Watsonville collapsed with the support structure in concrete/steel penetrated up through the bridge deck
  7. Candlestick Park suffered quite a few structural damages with cracks, though still standing as a whole, a few debris had fallen off the structure.

Those were the just the obvious ones that I was able to list, though there were a whole lot more damages incurred throughout the Bay Area that I am certain about, like bridges and airports, even school gyms and skyscrapers throughout both sides.  Power outage lasted for most of the evening, and I couldn’t really sleep much with constant fears of another huge earthquakes that would wipe out the entire city, much less myself and the entire family who were living with me at that time.  By the time my grandfather took me to Chinatown for a walk about a day or two after the earthquake (or it could have been the following morning), if I remembered correctly, the MUNI streetcar that I took went into West Portal Station, passed through Forest Hill Station, only to have it detoured to the surface at Castro Street and continued on towards downtown area.  By the time grandpa and I arrived at Chinatown, there was a sense of not quite feeling the crowd like it was when I first arrived there, as if the tourist attraction wasn’t drawing too many people due to a lot of streets, and particularly a few highways like I-480 Embarcadero Freeway, Central Freeway, were closed due to either safety concerns or actual damage incurred during the earthquake, Bay Bridge was closed for a few months to repair the upper section (westbound) that had collapsed into the lower level (eastbound), San Mateo Bridge had also suffered some damages, State Route 17 was closed for a month or two due to landslide, even Amtrak station at Historic 16th Street Station had also suffered significant damages and was rendered structurally unsound, and the Nimitz Freeway (Cypress Street Viaduct) was obviously beyond repair after the rescue and recovery and was demolished on notice.

Baseball, for obviously reasons, was not in priority for the local sports fans, and it wasn’t even in my thoughts at all since my only glimpses of the game was a brief viewing for Game 5 of the year’s National League Championship Series and the local news sports reports.  Besides, I had barely arrived in the country for merely three and half months, my focus back then were between academics and English football league standings in the scores section of the sports page.  That all changed by August or September 1990 when I began watching the game on television for the first time, and have been following baseball for almost three decades since (though I haven’t really watched the game as of late, I still follow the sport online).  On that day, though, I had just returned home from A.P. Giannini Middle School to my residence (specifically, my aunt’s house) not far from school, and had my routine down to science in what I was about to do by setting up a makeshift student desk by dragging the table and lined up where I was sitting next to the loveseat placed next to the partition wall, and then placing an architecture board on top.  Once the setup was complete, I took my homework and doing them according (although I have no memories whatsoever on which assignment I was doing specifically).  About 60 to 90 minutes later, I guess, a few rumbling came underneath where I sat at 5:04 PM Pacific Daylight Time and progressively increased strength with each ticking seconds, soon I was crying non-stop while one of the cousins sibling (Jimmy or Donny, I don’t remember anymore) along with grandpa ducking underneath the partition wall ledger while the other stood at the doorway next to the television as it rumbled through for 12 further seconds, though it had lasted about 17 seconds, it felt like an eternity on the brink of doom for me.  Even though I have heard about earthquakes at Mexico, Japan, Taiwan, and Indonesia, as well as experiencing a 5-scale earthquake just 10 weeks prior in the morning of early August, this was my first up close and personal experience during a large scale earthquake, and I literally bursted in tears when the shaking kept on coming in the hours after the initial jolt – even when my aunt, grandpa, and even my mother who was living in basement of our not-too-distant extensive family just 2 blocks from where I lived, came to her house and tried their best to calm me down.  That sickening feeling have become hypersensitive for any future earthquakes in the years since, especially when the 2014 South Napa Earthquake that occurred on August 24, 2014 at 3:20 AM PDT, just about 9 hours before the start of the 2014 Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma, I felt an eerily familiarity of the similar condition back in 1989, except that I was still in bed when it happened, needless to say that I had barely slept for a few hours and barely managed to arrive at a local Chinese church nearby a few hours later, much less those that were closer to my current residence just three blocks from my aunt’s house.  

Al Michaels summed it best with his introduction at the beginning of ABC’s telecast of the resumption of Game 3 of the 1989 World Series 10 days after on October 27, 1989:

At this very moment ten days ago, we began our telecast with an aerial view of San Francisco; always a spectacular sight, and particularly so on that day because the cloudless sky of October 17 was ice blue, and the late-day sun sparkled like a thousand jewels.

That picture was very much a mirror of the feel and the mood that had enveloped the Bay Area…and most of Northern California. Their baseball teams, the Giants and A’s, had won pennants, and the people of this region were still basking in the afterglow of each team’s success. And this great American sporting classic, the World Series, was, for the time being, exclusively theirs.

Then, of course, the feeling of pure radiance was transformed into horror and grief and despair- in just fifteen seconds.[18] And now on October 27, like a fighter who’s taken a vicious blow to the stomach and has groggily arisen, this region moves on and moves ahead.

And one part of that scenario is the resumption of the World Series. No one in this ballpark tonight- no player, no vendor, no fan, no writer, no announcer, in fact, no one in this area period – can forget the images. The column of smoke in the Marina. The severed bridge. The grotesque tangle of concrete in Oakland. The pictures are embedded in our minds.

And while the mourning and the suffering and the aftereffects will continue, in about thirty minutes the plate umpire, Vic Voltaggio will say ‘Play Ball’, and the players will play, the vendors will sell, the announcers will announce, the crowd will exhort. And for many of the six million people in this region, it will be like revisiting Fantasyland.

But Fantasyland is where baseball comes from anyway and maybe right about now that’s the perfect place for a three-hour rest.


In the thirty years since that fateful Loma Prieta Earthquake had occurred, I bear witnessed many sweeping changes in the Bay Area related to structural standards became more stringent, for those building that had survived in 1989 were ordered to either retrofit or demolish and rebuilt, such as Kaiser Permanente San Francisco 2200 O’Farrell Medical Building, which had been the main clinical building since the mid-1950s, their days were numbered when was told that the building wasn’t as safe as it once was during retrofitting, and was eventually demolished in 2017 or 2018.  Candlestick Park was also under borrowed time since 1989,  became the catalyst of the controversial attempt in selling he San Francisco Giants and moved to Tampa Bay, though National League (Major League Baseball) vetoed the sale.  The team would eventually settle the argument of how the new ballpark that is now known as Oracle Park was funded for construction, which was opened in April 2000, and the Giants have since won the World Series three times in five years between 2010 and 2014.  The 49ers, meanwhile, stayed at the ‘Stick for another decade before finally moved the team into Santa Clara at Levi’s Stadium, which rendered Candlestick Park redundant, and was demolished in 2016.  Oakland Athletics, as well as Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, had seen better days since the fateful World Series and had only made to the playoffs perhaps 5 times, but they would never come close to become baseball’s champion again.  The Golden State Warriors, a team that barely made a dent during NBA pre-season that year, would eventually play in the NBA finals in each of the last 5 years in Oakland and has since moved across the San Francisco Bay to Chase Center at Mission Bay in San Francisco on October 5, 2019 against the Los Angeles Lakers in a preseason game.  San Francisco International Airport had its international terminal completely rebuilt along with BART station that had since expanded to as far as Millbrae for the expansion in the Peninsula, and was opened in December 2000.

Meanwhile, the attention of dealing with similar structural issues that had taken down the Cyprus Viaduct during the earthquake, was then turned to San Francisco’s Embarcadero & Central Freeways; however, the fight to save or demolish these two freeways would end up pitting competing neighborhoods on opposite sides of the arguments.  For Central Freeway, Hayes Valley community, who wanted the freeway totally demolished as they have long thought of the structures as urban blight, had to contend with Richmond and Sunset Districts (latter of which is where I still live to this very day), who wanted CalTrans to rebuild for easy access for customers to visit the western part of the city.  Unfortunately, the northern part of the elevated freeway was damaged during the quake, and the section north of Fell Street (which was merely a block or two from City Hall, amongst many major buildings including now-demolished St. Paulus Evangelical Lutheran Church, where I had once visited as one of the extended family member who attending one of my distant relative’s wedding a year or two before getting burned down in 1995, was taken down by CalTrans three years later (1992).  I specifically remembered either my dad or my aunt, if not both, had used that stretch of Central Freeway at least once or twice, while the Oak/Fell side of the freeway had been used by both for many occasions before eventually being torn down, including my most infamous trip to Los Angeles on that fateful day in 1994.  This stretch was such a pain in the @$$ that City’s Proposition E was proposed for November 1998 election to settle this debate, Hayes Valley residents won the vote and managed to maintain the fight since.  By 2003, Central Freeway north of Mission Street into Octavia Street finally came down, Octavia Boulevard (the widen Octavia Street) was finally constructed, and the lot that the freeway ramps once stood have since been turned into housing.  

A similar battle occurred in relations to the Embarcadero Freeway between Chinatown/North Beach community and the Embarcadero waterfront counterparts, but the different between the two was that Embarcadero Freeway had indeed suffered significant damage to the structure that would end up closing to traffic.  Originally as part of the Integrated Highway System in San Francisco that, had it been built under the original proposal, it would have been linked with US-101 Highway at Doyle Drive and stretched into Fisherman’s Wharf and other local piers at the bay side of the coast; however, after series of protests between 1954 to 1966, INS was heavily reduced to what it was at the time of the earthquake.  Then-San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos, along with many San Francisco residents outside of Chinatown/North Beach communities, agreed to have the freeway demolished, even though the Embarcadero Freeway carried approximately 70,000 vehicles daily in the vicinity of the Ferry Building. Another 40,000 vehicles per day used associated ramps at Main and Beale streets, according to statistics prior to the earthquake.  Much like Central Freeway, Chinatown and North Beach neighborhoods opposed the demolition just as hard as those from Richmond and Sunset Districts, fearing a dramatic decline in local businesses that they would not recover from.  However, Agnos was able to negotiate with federal and states officials to win enough funding to ensure the demolition was made practical, only then the opposition relented by stating that “the city would squander ‘the opportunity of a lifetime’ if it allowed the freeway to remain”.  Still, the Board of Supervisors spent almost half a year to debate the proposal before narrowly voted in favor by 6-5 margin.  As a result, Agnos lost his bid to stay in the Mayor’s office via losing supports from Chinatown to Frank Jordan, who ironically was present at Candlestick Park as part of the city’s delegation for the 1989 World Series when the earthquake hit, during the 1991 Mayoral election while the demolition had begun on February 27, 1991.  Still, the demolition continued and subsequently became as part of a larger effort of retrofitting project to replace the western approach to the Bay Bridge, upgrade the aging Bay Bridge and its nearby freeways to modern earthquake standards that included the replacement of the entire eastern span worth cost $6 billion.  By 2013, the entire project has totally transformed the entire area into another pleasant attractions for both local residents and tourists alike, with a wide, palm-line boulevard with Light Rail tracks in the median that MUNI streetcars N Judah, T Third Street, and F Market and Wharves lines extended through Embarcadero and further into Mission Bay, Bayshore and Sunnyvale Districts; the former offramps just north of Folsom Street between Essex and Spear Streets was replaced with Sue Bierman Park (also known as Ferry Park), Ferry Plaza was constructed in front of the remodeled Ferry Building with gourmet market that was opened in 2003, and the likes of Brannan Street Wharf, Pier 14 Public Tier, and Rincon Park near Folsom Street were also constructed.  The Transbay Redevelopment Plan, which is another aspect of the larger retrofit project, had also erected with Salesforce Tower and Transbay Transit Center replaced the original Transbay Terminal. where I have had visited a few times before the demolition, and felt that the old structure rather massively underused with all the spaces available, though the new transit center had its own misadventure recently, but that would be another story altogether; even the former Broadway/Sansome Streets onramp had also been redeveloped into low-income housing.

Santa Cruz and its nearby towns were able to rebuild from devastation and thrived like they had before, but the entire region is not immune from another earthquake, as the 2014 South Napa Earthquake had demonstrated, part of Sonoma was torn up by the abruptness of the earthquake and caused a lot of damages even though this particular earthquake was not quite as powerful like Loma Prieta.   On the flip side, the demolition of the Embarcadero Freeway had inspired other freeway removal projects in other states and cities, Seattle’s Alaska Viaduct, for instance, was also categorized by local neighborhood as “Berlin Wall” in echoing the sentiments with our own, and just like the Central Freeway, they have considered their double-deck structure as a blight to the community.  What Seattle came up with was something similar with Embarcadero, with one slight difference by boring a tunnel underneath the viaduct for the entire length while the surface would be a widen boulevard with a 8-lane traffic (4 in both sides), it would be interesting to see if this plan has just as much impact as ours.  San Francisco Chronicle architecture critic John King once wrote in a 2004 retrospective of the 1989 earthquake:

[The Embarcadero Freeway] cut off the downtown from the water that gave birth to it, and it left the iconic Ferry Building – a statuesque survivor of the 1906 – stranded behind a dark wall of car exhaust and noise. Oppressive does not begin to describe it… Take a walk today on the 2 1/2-mile promenade between Fisherman’s Wharf on the north and China Basin on the south, and it’s hard to believe that an elevated freeway ever scarred the open air.

I think this sentiment should also reflect towards the catastrof**k known as Nimitz Freeway (Cyprus Viaduct), as the collapsed took the lives of at least 40 people, and for individuals like former firefighter Tim Peterson, who had barely survived from the crush.  As the city grew tired of such eye soars and the hypersensitivity due to the Loma Prieta earthquake, both sides of the Bay have rebuilt and thrived in the years since, but one thing for certain, there may still be a chance of another big earthquake in the near future and hopefully we may one day be able to detect an impending earthquake, in hopes of surviving another big one in the near future.

Resize text-+=
%d bloggers like this: