Twenty five years of earth moving

This Throwback Thursday concerns twenty-five years ago tomorrow, when the Loma Prieta earthquake killed 63 people and rewrote the face of northern California. At 5:04 that afternoon, I was sitting with my writing pad in my lap with soccer practice going on in front of me.  The roar of an approaching train grew as windows shattered and walls rattled, nearby houses came off their foundations, and car alarms began blaring.  The school’s playing field rippled like a shaken bedsheet, most of the kids ending up on the ground.  In minutes, all of downtown smelled of apple cider, from the huge vats of the nearby Martinelli factory.

At home, we found that we were lucky: the was still house standing, more or less, but the inside… The chimney had jumped in the air and come down a foot to the side of its base, leaving thirty feet of brick loose in their mortar.  A summer’s worth of canning had leapt off the shelves, with the pantry now knee-deep in packets, cans, and forty gallons of glop made up of applesauce, jams, chutneys, pickles, tomato sauce, and broken glass.

My mother's kitchen.

My mother’s kitchen.

Aftershakes shuddered every few minutes.  That night, we slept in the backs of our Volvo wagons.  For the next week, we lived in the driveway:Scan 142880003


cooking with water from jugs filled at various places that still had power to run their system.

Scan 142880003-1

The cat supervising the water bearer.

Santa Cruz County was more or less cut off from the rest of the world, with three of the four main roads in either buried under hillsides or submerged under water.

Downtown Santa Cruz lost its gems, the old Cooper House and the rambly building of Bookshop Santa Cruz.  On the other hand, San Francisco’s waterfront was transformed, the dark claustrophobic freeway torn down and the Embarcadero opened up.

And anyone who went through it twenty-five years ago, goes rigid whenever the walls start to shake.



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  1. Merrily Taylor on October 16, 2014 at 5:37 am

    What an experience! I think you Californians are brave people – I’ve been through several hurricanes, but as I often say, at least one knows one is coming and can prepare. The idea of the earth just moving under one’s feet freaks me out a bit.
    I was in San Francisco a few months after that and was driving with friends over the Bay Bridge, on the lower deck. As we drove along, the friend who was the California native pointed up to a different-colored piece of steel above us and said “That’s the part that came down during the earthquake.” I have to confess my foot came down a bit harder on the accelerator!

  2. Theresa W. on October 16, 2014 at 6:53 am

    I remember. As well as several more in my California past. When visiting with a group a few years ago, I was in a hotel when a ‘5’ hit near San Diego. My Minnesotan friend screamed, “What do we do? What do we do?” I just sighed and pulled her into a doorway. “We wait for it to stop.” Then I explained how we’d sleep in our ‘supportive’ garments and pack our small backpacks with purse, cell, bottled water and snacks, in case we had to evacuate with stronger one in the middle of the night.

  3. Rebecca Demarest on October 16, 2014 at 7:09 am

    I was in Montessori school at the time of this quake, but apparently my school got rattled pretty hard. Just a few years later, we ended up in the North Ridge earthquake as well. That’s when my mother decided my father couldn’t take any more jobs in California. I have to say, when a quake hits, I am definitely the first one under the table, or in a doorway. In 8th grade, I was the first one to recognize the earthquake that rattled Seattle during lunchtime and just laughed and laughed at all the kids complaining about having to leave their fries on the table…

  4. Lloyd Russell on October 16, 2014 at 7:25 am

    I was in the checkout line at Lunardis in Los Gatos. I simply left my groceries on the counter and hurried home. At the time, I lived right off of Kennedy Road and Los Gatos Blvd. We were out of our house for about a week and a half. Crazy time!

  5. Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard on October 16, 2014 at 8:38 am

    Wow! No wonder you could write so evocatively of Mary’s experiences in the San Francisco earthquake! We live only about 40 miles from the epicenter of the quake that shook Virginia, DC, and the East Coast a few years ago, and it rattled the house pretty hard (my nerves as well!), but the damage was minimal, thank heaven. Thanks to stuff I’ve read, including Lost Rooms, I knew what to do – I backed away from my hot oven where I was baking and got as far as I could from things that could fall on me (ended up in the archway between the kitchen and living room). We had some small things fall from shelves, but no structural damage. It was nothing compared to the Loma Prieta and other California quakes, but it was plenty for me!

    • Merrily Taylor on October 16, 2014 at 10:04 am

      Lark, I live in Virginia, too and so also experienced that very unexpected earthquake. I was lying down on a sofa out on my screen porch when all of a sudden there was a very strong jolt (so strong that I grabbed the back of the sofa lest I be “bucked” off) and a rumble. I remember thinking, “If this wasn’t Virginia, I’d think that was an earthquake.” But, since it WAS Virginia, I convinced myself that it was a heavy truck going by, or a sonic boom. I didn’t realize that it was an earthquake until a friend called from another state to ask if I was all right!
      If it makes you feel any better, I read somewhere that while earthquakes in the east are rare, the jolts are harder when they happen because our mountains are older (and thus more set in their ways? – I don’t know!) Whatever the truth, this was a big enough bump to get one’s attention!

      • Laurie King on October 16, 2014 at 10:47 am

        Plate tectonics: CA is on a border, the east coast isn’t: .
        So yes, our mountains (like those of Japan) are young.

        • Merrily Taylor on October 16, 2014 at 11:12 am

          And why our mountains are all soft and rolling and petite, compared to yours! My father, who grew up in Pasadena, would sometimes say to my mother (from Maine), “You call those mountains?”
          Speaking of which, my father used to tell stories of helping to dig folks out of the rubble after a very bad earthquake somewhere around Long Beach in the 20’s – he was around fifteen or sixteen, so 1925, perhaps?

      • Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard on October 16, 2014 at 11:07 am

        I knew it was an earthquake almost immediately, because it sounded like a freight train going by, and the whole house shook and went on shaking for – well, it felt like minutes, but it was probably only a minute or even less. And yes, I gather that quakes on the East Coast travel further because the bedrock is essentially one large, solid mass. The scariest thing, in retrospect, was how close the quake was to the Lake Anna nuclear power plant – and how close it was to the maximum event the plant was built to withstand.

        • Merrily Taylor on October 16, 2014 at 11:14 am

          Lark, well, I’d only been in one earthquake previously and that was a tiny one, so I’d no experience to go by. So glad it missed the nuclear power plant!

  6. Bob Difley on October 16, 2014 at 9:20 am

    I was sitting in my office overlooking the lot full of recreation vehicles (RVs) at my RV rental and sales location in Oakland when the quake hit. What i remember is that the lot suddenly became what looked like an animated Disney film of dancing RVs at a disco party. They jumped and bounced, not always in sync, but somehow managing to not slam into each other in their gyrations. The next thing I remembered was diving under my desk as the quake continued to roll on. A reactive but unnecessary move as my office was in a mobile trailer, not likely to have the roof fall in, and it was dancing around just like the RVs. When I reached my fiancee she told me that she, too, had reacted – as those who are used to living in earthquake country do – by getting under an arch in the pharmacy for protection from falling objects or roof parts – where she was shopping at the time. Several others had joined her and when the shaking was over, they shared a nervous laugh when they noticed that the arch was only a cardboard display, not likely to protect them from anything falling. No one was hurt and they worked their way out of the store through the messy goop from the hundreds of bottles that had toppled off their shelves and now lay broken with their contents littering the floors. My biggest frustration was the inability to move one of my RVs to the home of my future sister-in-law and her family in Watsonville as temporary housing when their home was red-tagged and they had to sleep in their Volvos for a week. All roads into southern Santa Cruz county were either closed or restricted to emergency personnel and residents. My fiancee and I tied the knot just a month later at that same Watsonville home of who would become the chronicler of the Mary Russell memoirs.

  7. Kimberly B. on October 16, 2014 at 4:09 pm

    This takes me back. I was in Noel’s Peace and World Religions class at Santa Cruz 25 years ago, although the quake actually happened when I was in my Medieval History class. I remember not really understanding how big the quake was when it happened, until I took the bus ride home and it took forever, and we kept seeing people’s chimneys crumbled on the sidewalks on the way. Unlike so many of the gorgeous Victorian houses, our cheap modern house didn’t suffer any damage per se, but the water heater broke and my best friend and I had to move our beds into the kitchen and living room to let the carpets dry out! Scary and yet memorable times!

  8. jkh1948 on October 16, 2014 at 9:12 pm

    I’m a native Seattleite, 66 yrs old. I’ve experienced several major quakes. The last major one was nearly 20 years ago, and we’re still arguing whether it was a 7.0 or as small as a 6.8 (Richter scale). I looked out my front windows and saw the earth, pavements and all, rolling like waves on the ocean. We had 4 tall, narrow bookcases along one wall; no, they weren’t bolted to a stud. Like an absolute goof, I stood against them, arms and legs widespread, to prevent them from toppling or their contents from flying. THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT NOT TO DO!

    • Merrily Taylor on October 17, 2014 at 5:52 am

      Love that, JKH, “Whatever the cost, save the books!”

  9. James Rendon on October 16, 2014 at 10:19 pm

    Sounds like the chimney did the “Time Warp”. (“It’s just a jump to the left. . .”)

  10. Merrily Taylor on October 17, 2014 at 7:17 am

    From today’s “Writer’s Almanac” and right on topic: “Today is the 25th anniversary of 1989’s Loma Prieta earthquake. It struck the San Francisco Bay at 5:04 p.m., during the televised warm-up to Game Three of the World Series between the Oakland A’s and the San Francisco Giants; as a result, it was the first earthquake in the United States whose opening shocks were broadcast on live television. The earthquake reached a magnitude of 6.9 on the Richter scale, occurred as two plates slipped along the San Andreas Fault, and lasted about 10 to 15 seconds. There were 63 fatalities; that number likely would have been closer to 300, had it not been for the World Series. Many people had left work early, or were otherwise parked in front of televisions at a time when they usually would have been crowding the freeways and bridges.”

    • Dave on October 20, 2014 at 5:48 pm

      I was just sitting down to watch that game with my Dad. I remember how thunderstruck the announcers were to start with (Dizzy Dean?) and then how calmly they carried on in true reporterly style.

  11. Margaret Wood on October 17, 2014 at 9:17 am

    The Long Beach earthquake took place just before 6 pm on March 10 1933. I was 9 years old but still remember it vividly.
    We lived in the San Fernando Valley, Northern part of Los Angeles City, a good long way from Long Beach. My father was driving along an East/West street. He suddenly complained that steering was hard, there must be a strong wind. I looked out at the orchard we were passing, : No wind. A couple of minutes later we arrived home. Mother in the back yard called, “There’s been a earthquake!” When my father didn’t believe her she pointed to the little fish pond with the water still rocking and splashing from side to side.

    • Merrily Taylor on October 17, 2014 at 10:01 am

      So my dad was younger than I thought, but i wasn’t too far off in the year – thanks for the info, Margaret!

      • Meredith on October 18, 2014 at 12:01 am

        This helps me with puzzlement over a “little” one recently in greater Pasadena. I swore I heard it before I felt it, and now I’m sure I did. It lasted fifteen seconds by the kitchen clock, which was a long one in my experience. I missed Loma Prieta because I lived in Massachusetts then; can’t say I’m sorry.

        The strong one for us in SoCal was 1994, Northridge. Husband and I had left the Midwest early to escape bad weather, which seemed a fine piece of irony. We were mere visitors and my dad had retrofitted like crazy, so we were very lucky.

        I do note that SoCal doesn’t do: hurricanes, tornadoes, or significant humidity. Have to finish all the preparedness jazz, though.

  12. Frances on October 17, 2014 at 9:14 pm

    There are any number of horror stories related to that day and many days that followed when people were trying to get their lives back on track. There were also a few very funny stories. My favorite concerned a working girl who lived by herself in a San Francisco apartment with a very small kitchen. Her dishwasher was across a very narrow aisle from her frig and that night when she opened it (the dishwasher), in the front of the top rack was a package of no-longer-frozen peas. Since both the frig door and the dishwasher door were closed when she left home that morning, and closed when she arrived home that night, the only scenario she could possibly imagine was that when the earthquake struck, it opened the frig door AND the dishwasher door simultaneously and just long enough for the peas to fly from the top freezer compartment into the dishwasher rack, after which both doors then closed.

    • Laurie King on October 18, 2014 at 6:42 am

      Yes, I can imagine her head-scratching on that one!

    • Laraine on November 6, 2014 at 6:49 pm

      Frances, I can attest to similar sorts of exchanges between facing drawers/cupboards/refridge/freezer. Fascinating to imagine the speed and apparent symmetry of the movement that resulted in doors being shut with their new contents, so quickly.

  13. knitwit on October 18, 2014 at 9:18 pm

    Yes, I heard the Loma Prieta quake before we felt it. The chimney cracked but didn’t get damaged. We did lose a few breakable objects, but nothing important.

    FYI: don’t stand in a doorway. The safest place to be is under a table. Shelter in place & watch out for flying objects.

  14. Patti on October 20, 2014 at 12:24 pm

    We were living on Mare Island and my husband was out to sea on that day. I arrived home from errands and picking up the kids, and they both went outside to play with friends in the naval housing area. I reached out to turn on the tv when the house gave a great shake. My first thought was “What the heck are the kids up to now?” Then I realized that our house was built concrete slab and not bound to be shaken like that even by the most rambunctious kid craziness–it had to be either an explosion on the base or an earthquake. I went out to the street to call my children and saw all my neighbors were outside also. We found out from tv broadcasts and base security that it was in fact a quake and we all went about contacting our various commands to report our situations so they would know we were all alright as our far-flung spouses tried to find out what was going on back home. My husband’s ship was diverted as it was returning in order to help provide earthquake relief, we have a belated but joyful reunion when they returned. We were all exceptionally lucky that day and sustained no real damage. We pulled together to help out in what ways we could for those not as fortunate.

    • Laurie King on October 20, 2014 at 6:52 pm

      It was extraordinary how people helped out afterwards, wasn’t it?

  15. TheMadLibrarian on October 21, 2014 at 12:34 pm

    I haven’t experienced any CA earthquakes (or really any earthquakes, for that matter, being a Midwestern girl), but we got a significant one about a decade ago out in HI. 7.0, and a 6.3 aftershock followed about 40 minutes later. You could hear it coming, like a train rolling in from the south, and feel the floor roll under you. We were still in the process of waking up at 7:10 a.m. on a Sunday, but that awakened us more effectively than the coffee!

  16. Leslie Randolph on October 22, 2014 at 12:49 pm

    Your photos took me back to the earthquake so fast. I was in my car in front of a hardware store in Santa Cruz while I watched the huge glass windows crumbling, telephone poles whipping back and forth and a thick cloud of dirt rise from the earth. My VW was leaping like a bucking bronco. Afterwards, when Santa Cruz was pretty much gridlocked because of the highway and bridge damage, I was given a limited permit to drive to work at Dominican Hospital because I was a nurse, a job considered to be essential. The sheer enormity of coming up with solutions about safety, sanitation, communication and meals – all without running water, phones or computers and being only on ancillary generator power was actually fascinating. My kitchen, about 3 miles from the epicenter, looked like yours. My cat, too, was as close to me as much as she could get after we finally managed to get her down from our broken chimney. And wasn’t it a shock to of find out what had happened up in the Bay Area. I’ll never forget the films of the collapse highways where I used to commuted every day once. You gave me a trip down memory lane.

  17. Pamela Calbeck on October 22, 2014 at 5:24 pm

    I was safe at home in Garden City, Kansas and my PEO group was meeting at my house. My two children were downstairs in the TV room; my son was watching the game on TV. We had been in the Bay area in late May over the Memorial Day weekend to attend the Jazz Festival in Sacramento with my husband’s family. I remember being spooked every time that we had to drive on that area of the freeway. My son ran up the stairs to tell me about the earthquake. My husband meanwhile was trying to find out about his uncle and family in Walnut Creek. One of those milestone events in my life for sure.

  18. Linda on October 23, 2014 at 3:35 pm

    Many years ago VT experienced an earthquake and each of the folks in my living room had a different reaction. Hearing the “train sound” and watching the overhead light swing like a pendulum, I said “earthquake”, a friend who lived near a local stream with precarious banks of eroding soil said “mudslide”. The concrete block salesman said “chimney fire” and the native of Pasadena said “California has fallen into the ocean.” I checked the chimney, the others made phone calls, and in those long ago days we had to wait until the next morning for confirmation.

    The really funny thing is that the mudslide lady said “I lived in Portland, Maine during WW II and there was an earthquake and it was nothing like this.” Not long after, I was in Portland and read a tiny article in the local paper saying that the US Navy had admitted that they had dropped depth charges on a suspected German sub in Portland harbor during WW II. The media had been told it was an earthquake at the time.

    Just as happy that my only earthquake story is a funny one.

    • Merrily Taylor on October 23, 2014 at 4:04 pm

      That’s a great story, Linda. At least your friend had a valid reason for thinking that an earthquake felt differently!

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