I do not believe in premonitions. Tuesday, the 17th of October, 1989, I started bolt upright in my bed, eyes open, and said "Earthquake!" The odd thing was that the familiar feeling of the bed rocking and the muted swush-swush of the wooden house joints creaking, working up momentum then settling down again, were not there. It was silent and still.
I got home from work at 5:00. The day was hot and smoggy. I sat down on the livingroom couch to read the sunday paper (I was a little behind). I thought of the big "2" on the answer machine and meant to get up and listen to the messages soon as I had taken off my boots. Now, taking off my boots is a big event in my day. It means that I am home for the night, not to go out again. Rest and re-creation of the spirit. I heaved the afternoon sigh and felt the familiar feeling and heard the whispering. Earthquake. Oh, well, nothing new. I had ridden out the last earthquake on this couch, and in the afternoon, too. Afternoon earthquakes are rare. Most of them happen in the morning. And that last one had happened while I was sitting on this couch, having a personal crisis which overshadowed by far the sharp little afternoon quake, a 4.0 as I remembered.
Most earthquakes are over before you fully realize that they are happening. One or two seconds, at most. After four or five seconds, this one had not stopped, and I decided that I would be less anxious outside. I bolted for the stairs. I did not even get out of the living room. The whole house started to rock back and forth as a unit, from north to south. Reason flew out the door and I was seized by a primal desire to brace myself against something. I stood in the livingroom doorway (like they say one should) and braced my hands and feet against the doorway. Things rattled on the shelves. The house jerked north. Things on south side shelves were slammed against the wall, like people in cars being hit from behind. Everything on the north side had its shelf jerked out from under it and onto the floor it went. Then the house jerked south, and the ruin was complete. Books, two hundred cassettes, rocks, telephone, sentimental objects, all on the floor. From the kitchen I heard the clinking of glassware and a loud crashing. Against the wall by my right shoulder was the top row of my four level, board and cinderblock record collection. It was thumping against the wall, working up momentum. Reason returned. I decided to try and save it. I braced my feet hard and grabbed the top board with both hands. Then the shaking stopped.
It was very quiet. The electricity was off. I went out through the kitchen, dodging the big AR stereo speaker lying on the floor. I went out the back door yelling "Mary! Mary!" for I didn't hear her. Most any unusual event brings her out onto her deck to talk. I tripped over the little chickenwire dog run while trying to look into the door of her brother's downstairs room. I went up the stairs, clumping and shouting. She opened the door. Her kitchen looked like mine. Their dinner had fallen from its pans, off the stove, onto the floor! Mary, a native to the city, was calm, but for a moment was almost in tears over the breaking of her glass coffee pot. They were OK, had candles, flashlights and a little radio, so I went back to the house.
I looked the house over carefully. The structure seemed intact. The gas pipes did not leak. The stove worked. The heater pilot light was still lit. The water pipes looked OK, though there was a seep coming from the inlet pipe to the hot water heater. I scraped the rusty piece of pipe with my finger and the side of it flaked off. It squirted a tiny stream of water. I turned the valve off and it stopped. I decided to try and fix this, the only damage to my lifestyle, before it grew dark. I went out front. There were many, many cars driving up and down the street. More cars on 28th Avenue than in any normal time. People just driving around to see what they could see, which in this neighborhood was nothing. Mary was out front, too, and we compared reports from our little radios. The electricity was off all over town. The bridges still stood, but there was a big fire in the Marina area. Yes, we could see the black smoke plume above the hills to the northeast. I asked Mary if I could look through Bill's big pile for the right piece of pipe. While we were in her basement, I looked over her pipes. They were OK, too, and I found the proper length of pipe. I borrowed some pipe compound from Paul, the retired vice cop three houses up. I assembled the repaired pieces, but could not figure out how to tighten the assembly. When I applied water pressure, it leaked in several places. It was getting dark, so I resigned myself to cold water until Tomorrow and went upstairs. I got out the candles and started to pick things up. I told myself that when I got up in the morning, I did not want to wake up in a disaster area! About this time, before it was completely dark, I saw the first sign of official reaction. A dark green Air Force C130 flew low behind the house, down 30th Avenue and out over Stern Grove. It was strangely comforting to see a plane from the old hometown, flying close like I had seen it fly so many times during childhood in Smyrna. I lit candles and started in the livingroom. The only broken thing in the living/dining room was a seashell, fallen from the mantlepiece. The kitchen was more dramatic. The speaker fell from a cabinet (I had always meant to bolt the speakers down), bounced off the aluminum pot in the dish drying rack, and landed on the floor. The pot was bent in two with a big crease, a glass in the drying rack was broken, the speaker had a big chunk out if its fibreboard case, and the corner of it had punched a largish hole in the floor. When I opened the refrigerator door, a peanutbutter jar of salad dressing fell on the floor and broke. Not much damage, really. It was dark now, around 8:30 or 9:00. I went outside for a moment, to see the city in the dark. There was a single streetlight shining a block away, up at the corner of Taraval and 28th. The only other lights were the red flashers on the big TV tower on Mt Sutro, blinking away at double speed. I looked up and could see the Milky Way, just like I was out camping. I had never before seen the stars of the galaxy in the San Francisco sky. Usually all one can see through the glow are the first magnitude stars. I went back inside and started to pick up in the bedroom. I heard knocking at the door. It was my brother Scott. He had seen the fire two blocks from his Marina apartment, and had abandoned ship. He had ridden his bicycle, in company with another tenant from his building, through the Presidio and out to the Sunset. They came in, watched me finish picking up, and helped me cook the Indian dinner I had been going to feed to Nick and Lou.
The telephone received calls all night. Nick called first, saying that they were not coming to dinner, and were having a cookout on their deck just below Coit Tower, watching the Marina burn. Zelda called, and Scott got her to relay out a couple of messages for me. I found out from Mary when I went over about 9:30 that if you picked the receiver up and waited long enough, you did get a dial tone. I made one last attempt to tighten the hot water pipe and was, to my surprise, successful. The power came back on around 11:00. I called out to Mother and Dad around 11:30.
The Marina fire was almost out. The Bay Bridge was out of service and a big piece of the Nimitz Freeway (which I used to drive every day!) had fallen down on top of a lot of cars. I went to bed. I had thought to sleep out back in a tent, but both Mary and Scott made fun of this, so I stayed indoors.
The next morning, Scott and I took the truck down to the Marina. There were a million gawkers with huge cameras and video recorders. The police were not letting vehicles in beyond Fillmore Street, but foot traffic was unhindered. The streets and sidewalks had humps like frost heaves, out of which had oozed gray sandy mud. Many houses had cracks radiating from the garage door frames. A few were noticeably out of plumb. The building behind Scott's was off its foundation. From the second floor up it looked alright, but all of the door posts between the first floor garage doors slanted at the same angle, like slats of a venetian blind, and the whole business hung out over the sidewalk. Scott's building looked no worse than it ever did (it had always been subsiding, ground floor walls bulging), but now there were some cracks inside the stairwell. I picked up the books in the hall, and Scott carried a carload of camping gear, clothing and electronic equipment down to his Honda. Most of all I remember the helicopters. Many of them, all different kinds; little scouts, mediumweight TV station machines, and two big green army Blackhawks, chuffing past in close formation. The cameratoting crowd had a definite air about it. Not bad, mean, unruly, but some variety of manic, a palpable feeling of being on the edge of control. As we finished stuffing the Honda, the police SWAT team, big beefeaters in their baseball caps, pants tucked into their boots, started a sweep down Cervantes, not saying anything or threatening anyone, but just putting in a strong presence. Scott actually stopped them and asked how to get his car out of the barriers. They continued on down the street. When I next came out of the building, looking down the street, I could see that they had cleared the big crowd away from the front of the building that had fallen part way into the street. Scott got into the Honda and I walked back to the truck. We heard later that, soon after we left, the police cleared the eight block section of town, even running out the residents.
I went to work around 11:00. I felt at loose ends, not really wanting to do much. The warehouse had come through unharmed. I spent the day inspecting the various cracks in the walls, sweeping up chips of plaster, making small talk and laughing uneasily with those of the crew who had shown up for work.
The only psychological effects worth relating were these: I was alone during the actual earthquake, and I remained calm. People to whom I talked said that, the more people they were with, the louder were the cries of panic. Helping people out, repairing things, picking up, all kept me calm and useful. The aftershocks were unnerving, but they were only little single shakes, stilled before one had time to take any serious action. I felt that I was taking it all very well, but the truth came out. The second night after the quake the refugee population in my house reached the maximum, four people and a dog. At 3:00 AM there was a strong afterjolt, and when I woke up I found myself running, naked, halfway down the stairs to the front door. I tiptoed quickly back through the sleepers and lay in bed, shaking from adrenaline. I told myself "Wayne, you are not as calm as you think you are."
It's been almost two weeks now. Things are back to normal, but I am instantly depressed by cracks in anything, chips of plaster on a floor, carrying furniture, lashing things down into the bed of my truck, driving other people around in the night. These things will pass. Nothing bad happened to me, and quickly, I will look back on the whole thing as exciting. We got off light, I guess.