Loma Prieta

October 17, 1989. 5:04 P.M. I’d just left the Moscone Convention Center with my colleague, Jacqueline. We were exhibiting at a conference on water pollution and had just settled into our seats on one of the buses shuttling exhibitors and attendees to their hotels for the evening. And then it struck. For fifteen seconds it felt like a carnival whirlybird ride.

The windows in the buildings around us seemed to breathe in and out, until, released from their frames, these great panes exploded, showering fragments of glass, glittering in the traffic’s lights. I turned to Jacqueline and, in a calm voice that surprised me more than her, said, “It’s an earthquake. I’ve been through a few… it’ll pass.”

And after those fifteen seconds passed, the bus driver stood, braced himself between two grab bars against the undulating aftershocks, his red face wearing a forced smile. “Okay, folks,” he said, “that was a bad one, I have to admit. But don’t worry… I’m still going to get you to your hotels in one piece.” To this day, I don’t know how he did it, given the buckled pavement, the multiple collisions, the mountains of debris, the missing manhole covers, the wandering, shell-shocked pedestrians, the nonfunctioning traffic lights, the emergency vehicles heading every direction, navigating a city in the throes of utter chaos. And we believed him; he was convincing because he acknowledged the difficulty of the situation, but he also maintained an innate confidence that was contagious.

And he managed. Jacqueline and I, along with our fellow passengers, made it “in one piece”—if a bit rattled—to our respective hotels. The chaos would continue, though; it had only just begun.

This was a time before smartphones. As it stood, even standard telephone communications were disrupted—overstressed, damaged, or both. Power was out throughout the city, although our hotel had backup generators powering the lobby and emergency lighting on upper floors. On arrival, we were told by hotel staff that we were able to access our rooms, gather “essential belongings for the night,” including pillows and blankets, but then had to return to the lobby; rooms, it was explained, could not be occupied until they’d been inspected to ensure structural integrity. No one knew when that might happen.

We had rooms on an upper floor, and it was a harrowing, claustrophobic journey to climb up the stairs, in the red glow of emergency lighting, while still feeling the aftershocks vibrating below us. Our rooms had more surprises in store—drawers tossed from dressers, mattresses completely slid off box springs, toilet contents sloshed on bathroom floors, lamps and televisions toppled, clothing slipped from hangers. We jumped at the chance to change out of our dresses, pantyhose and pumps, and into jeans, sweatshirts and sneakers—the clothes we’d packed for booth setup/breakdown. We’d be camping after all; best to be comfortable. “Essential belongings for the night” meant toiletries we could slip into our purses, I’d surmised; Jacqueline concurred.

When we made our way back down the stairs, still jarred by aftershocks, we were greeted by a sea of our fellow hotel guests milling about in the lobby, jockeying for the best position to park themselves and their belongings on ever-shrinking floor space. “Essential belongings for the night” had been interpreted, by most, as suitcases filled with everything they’d had in their rooms. Staff had to gently remind them that there wouldn’t be room for both people and suitcases; guests would be able to access their rooms again by the next morning, it was announced. Amidst grumbling, folks headed back to their rooms, overkill suitcases in hand.

Free drinks and free bar food went a long way in settling frayed nerves and short tempers. The one television in the lobby provided updates on the devastation around us, including a live check-in from Candlestick Park, where the third game of the World Series had almost gotten underway when the earthquake struck. And then it hit me—my husband and young son, back in Virginia, would’ve been tuning in to watch the game. By that point, they’d known, for about an hour, that a devastating earthquake had hit the Bay Area—and I was there, completely out of reach. We all quieted when cameras showed the Nimitz Freeway, an entire deck collapsed on top of another, crushing the cars between them. Then coverage jumped to images of a lone car dropping off the edge of a deck on the Bay Bridge. It was heart-wrenching. I watched, transfixed, hoping against hope these people, these lives, would be saved.

Later still, we watched as cameras panned over fires burning out of control in the Marina District, a result of broken gas mains. Feeling a wave of claustrophobia overcome me, I wandered outside for breathing room. I was greeted by smoke, dust, a red glow on the horizon, and the sounds of insistent, shrill sirens and helicopters whoop-whoop-whooping overhead. The television had made it all seem less real, distant; I hastily retreated inside, rejoining Jacqueline.

We’d staked out a spot in a far corner, away from the lobby entrance, and strategically close to restrooms. Camped out next to us was a family from Australia; the father was an environmental scientist attending the same conference as us, but as a speaker. He was accompanied by his wife—a schoolteacher—very young son, and precocious preteen daughter, who’d all traveled along “to play tourist.”

They were wonderful company, keeping us entertained with jokes and stories throughout the night. The daughter was particularly chatty, explaining tectonic plates, major constellations visible in the Southern Hemisphere, and the Coriolis Effect on water drainage direction—all in great, technical, believable detail. Her dad interjected, though, telling us his daughter was pulling our leg on that last one; he confirmed that water does not, indeed, drain in a clockwise direction in Southern Hemisphere toilets and sinks. His daughter smiled and winked at us. The mother shrugged, and said, “We’re convinced she’ll be a politician.” In hindsight, I can only guess it was nervous energy propelling her chattiness, but the distraction that little girl provided was most welcome. Her shy brother allowed his sister to do most of the talking, although his mother’s comment prompted him to say, “I’m going to be a veterinarian.”

By morning, we were a ragged, sleep-deprived group—but we were a community of lobby dwellers, linked by disaster, looking out for one another. Free coffee, juice and donuts were made available to all, and everyone patiently queued up for the welcome sustenance. We were surrounded by an outside world of chaos, yet in that space, we were calm, polite, considerate of our fellow travelers. The television was also no longer on at that point, which was a blessing. Although it was a far cry from our current 24-7 cable news fearmongering, the live coverage, on a tiny screen, was disturbing. Its absence was not missed.

A convention staffer showed up while Jacqueline and I were finishing up our coffee and announced that the conference was officially canceled. All exhibitors were required to break down their booths by noon, so the contracted logistics company could make shipping arrangements immediately. He smiled and said, “If you’re an exhibitor, you’ll need to come with me now.” Jacqueline and I stood and looked down at our new friends, husband and wife each with a sleeping child’s head plopped in their laps. Before we could say anything, the husband said, “Nice meeting you. Be safe. We’ll probably be gone by the time you return… we’re going to try our luck at the airport.”

It was like trekking through a war zone, although we were surprised at how many people were out and about. We walked the six long city blocks to the Moscone Convention Center, surveying the damage along the way, dodging traffic still attempting to move without traffic lights. Volunteers, in street clothes, were playing traffic cop; the real ones had more important matters to attend to. Both of us, by that point, were relieved at having something to do; if our booth could get home, so could we. We were hopeful.

We reached the convention center, pulled our exhibitor badge lanyards from our purses to gain entry, and walked down the stationary escalators to access the underground exhibit halls. We were practically knocked back by the smell of chlorine. Someone mentioned that there were large tanks of water, at one of the booths towards the back of the hall, emptied of a good volume of their contents during the quake. Jacqueline and I joked about the Coriolis Effect, surmising that the water probably drained counterclockwise. Someone else noted the relative lack of damage on the exhibit floor and credited the convention center’s roller foundation. Who were we to question such an observation? We were just grateful our booth was in one piece—just like us.

Within about fifteen minutes, we had our Velcroed display panels stripped down, rolled, and tucked away into two, hard-sided plastic roller cases. Leftover brochures, highlighting our company’s Value Engineering workshop expertise—required, at the time, on wastewater treatment plant construction projects—were packed away in one box. We affixed pre-addressed labels to all, and we were done. We decided to wander about and see what we could do to assist others in their breakdown efforts. No one refused our offer; we ended up with lots of gimmicky giveaways to stash in our purses—although the candy bars were eaten on the spot. By that point, we were both ravenous. And, once again, everyone we encountered was in a we’re-all-in-this-together mode. We had a shared sense of purpose—pack up, get home. There was no time for fretting.

We heard a rumor the phone booths on the upper level of the convention center had working phones, so we ran up those escalators, and confirmed it—the lines for each booth were several people deep, but we weren’t leaving until we could both call home. It took me a moment to realize it was a Wednesday, and my husband would still be at work; I took my chances and called his office number collect. The receptionist accepted the charges and put me through to my husband immediately; she’d been given a heads-up I might be calling, as had everyone at his office.

I remember saying, “I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine”—and meaning it—as my husband rattled on nervously about turning on the game, seeing the screen go blank, and wondering what the hell happened. He found out soon enough—and then the worry began. My boss had called him to see if he’d heard from us; I asked him to call and let him know we were both okay, and the booth would soon be on its way home. He also gave me the 800-number for my company’s travel agent—as my boss had requested—with the instruction to call when we got to the airport to confirm our return flights or change them as needed. Apparently, some flight disruptions had been noted on the news. And that was it. The line went dead before either of us could say, “I love you.”

Jacqueline’s fiancé had also received a call from our boss—as had her parents back in Poland, Ohio. She, too, had been given the 800-number for the travel agency, along with the same instructions—and had managed, unlike me, to write it down before the lines went dead.

There was a collective groan from the queued people outside the booths, as word quickly spread that connection to the outside world—so close—had been yanked away. As we made our way back to the hotel, even more people were wandering about, observing their altered world—and assisting neighbors, friends, perfect strangers. One couldn’t help but feel a part of something larger, something inherently inspiring.

We were greeted by a nearly empty lobby, and the same front desk staff who’d been there overnight with us, as their relief staff couldn’t make it in. They informed us, apologetically, that thanks to a Fire Marshall visit, they could no longer allow guests to sleep in the lobby—nor were the guest rooms deemed safe for sleeping. We would need to head to the airport, as soon as we could get packed up; we were assured that our remaining nights’ stay would be credited to the credit cards on file—and that they’d assist us in getting a cab. Jacqueline and I both expressed our relief that heading to the airport was one step closer to getting home.

The cab ride to the airport took far longer than anticipated, as the driver had to follow numerous detours to avoid damaged and closed streets. The radio announced the current death toll, and the latest updates on rescue and recovery efforts, prompting our driver to cross himself. Jacqueline, a practicing Catholic, crossed herself as well. I mirrored the gesture, in spite of never having done it before; it simply felt right.

The airport was a madhouse. Lines for all the airline ticket counters were out the doors. It turned out our airline was the only one with damaged fuel lines disrupting flights. We called the travel agent, grateful that phone booths were plentiful, and the lines were working. She managed to get us booked on the only flights out with seats available—a late night flight to Seattle in several hours, followed by an early Thursday morning flight to Detroit, followed by an evening flight into Washington-Dulles. We jumped at the chance to leave and waited in line to get our printed tickets.

With hours to wait, we took advantage of the time to eat, wash our faces in bathroom sinks, and apply more deodorant. It also gave us time to talk. We both felt powerless in the face of such a major natural disaster; we wanted to help, but had to leave, to return to our loved ones, our lives, our work. I shared with Jacqueline my mixed feelings about coming to the city in the first place—how I’d arrived there, shortly after college, married, had a baby. How I’d fled, five years later, escaping a man—my first husband, who wanted me dead, and had broken my jaw—taking my young son with me. Four months after leaving, and returning to Virginia, my husband abducted my son, and kept him in hiding for another four months—until he called to say I could come and get him; they were back in California. We’d met at SFO. My son and I were reunited and flew home together to Virginia. The earthquake—the immediacy of getting home once more—had distracted me from all those painful memories.

Jacqueline reminded me that I was safe, my son was safe, and we—the two of us, she and I—had survived this latest life challenge and were stronger for it. She was seven years younger than my thirty-one years—and technically my subordinate—but her wisdom, her calm presence in that moment, comforted me. Yes, I was a survivor; I’d survived worse. And it hit me: I’d never once felt panic throughout this latest challenge.

All went well on the first leg of our journey, although spending the night in the Seattle-Tacoma Airport took its toll on both of us; lack of sleep was kicking in, exacting its vengeance on our weary bodies. Everything ached. The next leg to Detroit also went off without a hitch; and on arrival, we repeated our toilette routine in the ladies’ room, with the addition of one more element—changing into clean underwear and new sweatshirts bought in an airport gift shop, accomplished while standing in cramped stalls. We laughed as we gave each other play-by-play reports of our progress through the stall dividers.

But then our luck changed; an early snowstorm hit Detroit. We sat on the plane for several hours and watched—with great hope—each time the de-icing operations commenced. Finally, just before the airport shut down for the night, we were on our way home. The passengers erupted in spontaneous applause.

I don’t remember how late it was when we arrived, only that it was dark, and I curled up in the backseat on the ride home, my husband driving, my young son riding shotgun. Jacqueline’s fiancé was there to greet her, as well, and she reported to me the next day—when we checked in with each other by phone—that she’d slept on the way home, too. Our boss had called us both earlier that morning—a Friday—to tell us not to come back to work until Monday. Frankly, I don’t think either of us would’ve been able to drive to work that day, much less function, but we appreciated the gesture. We both slept through most of the weekend, checking the television periodically to see how recovery efforts were progressing.

We reminded ourselves—often—that we were safe, whole; we went on with our lives, we had no long-term effects from our ordeal. But neither of us could forget the images, the smells, the movement below us, the people we encountered—and that overwhelming sense of community we’d felt.

Within a few months, the conference organizers were selling T-shirts—commemorating the convention, the earthquake, the date and time—with proceeds going to local San Francisco aid organizations. I still have that T-shirt, tucked away in a drawer.

Thirty years later, the facts are still familiar—6.9-magnitude, sixty-three people dead, including Anamafi Moala, the twenty-three-year-old nurse’s aide, who’d plunged off that Bay Bridge deck in a loop that played over and over; I can still see it now when I close my eyes. Added to that were the almost four thousand injured, and an estimated $7.4 billion in direct damages. Many lessons were learned—what to do, what not to do—and improvements to basic infrastructure and building codes were undertaken. Engineers and construction workers joined their brethren in the first responder ranks as heroes—completing repairs in record time. San Francisco survived.

I wonder about our Australian friends—whose names I’ve long forgotten. I wonder whether the mom and dad are retired now, whether their daughter entered politics, whether their son became a veterinarian. Honestly, I hope their daughter followed in her father’s footsteps and became a scientist. That girl was going to set the world on fire, no matter what field she entered, of that I was certain.

I thought of her when our grown son was visiting several years ago, before he ventured off to work in Antarctica for the first time. I asked him to report back on the Coriolis Effect when he flushed the toilet at the South Pole Station. He gave me a look; I gave him a wink. And it all came back—the courage to leave a violent marriage was inspired by one thing: to save my son. I accomplished that, and more, and I’m stronger for it. I am resilient, a survivor, a wife, a mother, a businessperson. But one of my greatest attributes? I am always calm in the face of chaos.

About the Author

Helen Beer

Helen Beer sells for a living. She’s had success in short story contests, with multiple placements in both Moondance Film Festival and the Screencraft Cinematic Short Story competitions. Her work has appeared in Literary Potpourri, FRiGG, Typishly, Flash Fiction Magazine, Persimmon Tree, The First Line, and 101 Words, with forthcoming pieces in Sky Island Journal, Haunted Waters Press, STORGY Magazine, and Defenestration. When not working or writing, she enjoys the Zen-like tranquility afforded by time spent riding her horse and mucking stalls.