The earthquake happened just after 5:00 p.m. and by 6:00 I was on the road. I felt an irresistible urge to go to our apartment in the city. It was a 45-mile trip, and in normal conditions it would have taken me less than an hour to drive it.
None of the overpasses on the freeway had collapsed, according to the radio station I was listening to in the car. That freeway (highway 101), which takes you out of Silicon Valley, up through Palo Alto, and along the bay past the airport and Candlestick Park into the city, has a lot of them. Another earthquake could happen any second, I thought.
It’s funny to remember that for several years after the ‘89 earthquake, when traffic was heavy (daily, in other words) and there was an overpass to drive under, most cars wouldn’t stop under it in case another earthquake hit. People sitting in rush-hour traffic would wait before the overpasses and then scoot under fast when there was space for their car on the other side. Everybody understood the wisdom of that.
There was traffic on 101 that evening, but it kept moving. It took me about an hour to get up to Candlestick Park. By then the World Series game had been called off and the tens of thousands of baseball fans in the stadium needed to go home. A lot of them lived in San Francisco, of course, and a lot of them lived on the other side of San Francisco Bay in Oakland, Berkeley, or other East Bay towns.
The normal route back home for most of those East Bay residents would have taken them north on the freeway through downtown San Francisco and across the Bay Bridge. But a section of the Bay Bridge had collapsed in the quake. The bridge was closed for the foreseeable future.
So the East Bay baseball fans had to drive south toward Silicon Valley and, if they were brave, turn east at Foster City and drive across the 6-mile-long San Mateo Bridge over the bay toward Oakland. If they weren’t brave, they had to drive another 30 miles to go around the south end of the bay, avoiding all bridges, and then the 50 or so miles north to Oakland/Berkeley. Under dozens of overpasses.
I was going into San Francisco (we lived near Japantown) and figured I would be able to drive right in on the freeway. There was a freeway that would get me to within 8 or 10 blocks of our building. Wrong! Not that night.
Just north of Candlestick a portion of 101, where it joins up with I-280, is elevated. Or was. No, it didn’t collapse, but a similarly constructed double-decker freeway in Oakland had collapsed that afternoon and 60 or so people had been killed. So you can imagine that the double-decked road in San Francisco had been closed for safety reasons. All the cars were being re-routed onto city streets. The double-deck freeways in and around San Francisco were all torn down in the 1990s.
I just kept hoping that Walt hadn’t decided to drive to Berkeley that afternoon and that he hadn’t been on the section of freeway that collapsed when it happened. I knew it was unlikely — he normally took BART, the regional transit system. Still...
Fortunately, I knew my way around the part of the city where they took us off the freeway. We had lived not far from there when we first arrived from Washington DC a few years before. But it was very slow going once I was on streets in the neighborhoods. There was no electricity, so there were no traffic signals.
That meant that every intersection had to be treated as a 4-way stop, and there was a lot of traffic until I got farther away from the freeway. I drove through the neighborhoods south of I-280 over toward Glen Park, where we had lived. From there I knew a “quick” way to get downtown.
At most intersections, there were people out directing traffic. The weather was warm and clear — unusually warm for San Francisco, the kind of weather that is called “earthquake weather” there, aptly enough. And hundreds of people were outside. It was safer to be out on the sidewalk or in your yard (if you had one) rather than in a house or building, because another quake could occur at any minute.
On the radio they were saying that a lot of houses had collapsed in a neighborhood called the Marina, not far from the Golden Gate Bridge, and that a major fire was raging. At the time, I taught French one night a week in a high school in the Marina (I was teaching for SF City College, which held night classes in schools all over the city) so I knew that neighborhood well. My class would normally have been held the next night.
In fact, a woman I worked with at UNIX Review lived in an apartment building across the street from the school, and it was condemned after the quake. It didn’t burn, though, and she was able to get her belongings out before the building was demolished.
I drove slowly through Glen Park and up into the Twin Peaks neighborhoods along Diamond Heights Boulevard, past the Safeway store where we often bought groceries. Again, people were everywhere outside, sitting in folding chairs out on the sidewalks, or on blankets, having a picnic supper and a glass of wine. In some ways, it was a big party.
As it got dark, all the people directing traffic at all the intersections seemed to find flashlights somewhere. They were doing their volunteer work with great efficiency. Cars were moving through, but slowly, especially with so many pedestrians out and the party atmosphere.
After you pass the Diamond Heights Safeway, the boulevard curves off to the left and you have a magnificent view from the hillside of downtown San Francisco and the entire northern half of the city. There, straight north and off in the distance, you could see the flames (or at least the glow and the smoke) in the Marina district. People were out picnicking on blankets and watching the fire. The sound of sirens filled the air. Helicopters hovered in the sky.
I kept driving down into the city, passing through the Castro on Upper Market Street and then turning north toward our neighborhood at Gough and Sutter streets. Still there was no electricity and I had to negotiate hundreds of intersections. Some buildings had suffered significant damage, and there were fire and police vehicles all along the route.
I finally got home at about 8:30 p.m., after 2½ hours in the car. There was the building, standing upright. Of course I couldn’t get into the parking garage, because the electric door opener wasn’t working. But then I didn’t really want to put the car inside, because what if the building collapsed during the night and crushed it flat? Somehow I found parking on the street.
I didn’t have a flashlight so I had to feel my way into the building and climb the four flights of stairs up to our apartment in the dark. When I arrived, I opened my front door and then knocked on the neighbors’ door across the hall. Frank and Diane were there, and they were fine. Frank came out with a flashlight and helped me get into my apartment and find some candles and a flashlight of my own.
Everything in the apartment was fine. Only one or two little knicknacks had fallen over when the earth moved.