09 April 2007

The aftermath

There I was in my apartment, which I had found just as I left it despite the earthquake. Our building, like many others in San Francisco, was built on bedrock and therefore less susceptible to the kind of shaking I had experienced in my friends' house, located on the valley floor in Sunnyvale.

There was no electricity, no phone service, and no Walt. I didn't know where he was. About midnight, I decided to try to get some sleep. I decided to stretch out on the sofa, which was near my front door. I kept my clothes and shoes on. If there was another quake, I wanted to me about to get up and out of the building as fast as possible, and I didn't want to cut my feet up stepping on broken glass or other debris.

At about midnight, miracle of miracles, the phone rang. It was Cheryl. I told her I was fine, she said she and John had been cleaning up as best they could, and she said Walt had been able to call her. He was fine and was spending the night with friends at somebody's apartment in Berkeley. He and some other people who lived in San Francisco had no easy way to get back across the bay that night. The bridge was closed because of quake damage and no ferries were running. Now I could sleep.

The phone rang again at 4:00 a.m. It was my sister calling from North Carolina. She said she had tried to get through for a while the night before, but no luck. It was 7:00 a.m. on the East Coast and she thought she would try one more time. This one was the charm. She would let my mother and others in N.C. know that I had survived.

I must have slept for a few more hours after that phone call. When I woke up, I didn't have any way to heat water or cook anything, of course. And I didn't go out, at least not right away. What I did have was a battery-powered radio and even a little battery-powered TV set, so I could listen to the news. The authorities were asking people to stay home unless they had a very good reason to go out that day.

I tried my telephone but I couldn't get a dial tone. I wanted to call the UNIX Review offices to see whether I could come to work. It was close enough that I could walk, but too far for me to want to walk all the way there just to find the building closed ... or flattened. I decided I wouldn't try to go to work unless I could get somebody there on the telephone first.

Later in the morning, I talked to my neighbors Frank and Diane, and Frank and I even went out to see if we could find a grocery store that was open. We did. I remember that he bought a six-pack of beer. We went back to the building and Diane had made some sandwiches. We sat out on their balcony in the balmy weather and had a sandwich and a beer. The street we lived on was a major thoroughfare south from the city, and there were a lot of emergency vehicles going by that day.

Early in the afternoon my phone rang again. It was Paris calling. A guy I had met the year before at the Grenoble conference, and who lived and worked in Paris, was calling me to see if I was all right and to see if I thought I would be able to come to the conference in Grenoble in a few days. I told him I didn't know yet. He had been helping me by editing the paper I was planning to present. I told him that I wasn't able to make calls out but somehow his call had come through.

Sometime in the afternoon Walt got home. He had been able to get on a ferry in Berkeley or Oakland and then walk the couple of miles to our building through the Financial District and Union Square from the ferry landing. He said it was eerily quiet in the city, even though there were crews out inspecting buildings for damage, which didn't seem to be to heavy.

So that was Wednesday. I was supposed to teach my French class that evening at the Marina School, in the neighborhood that suffered the worst damage from the quake. I heard on the radio that the school had been set up as an emergency shelter for people left homeless in the neighborhood, so I knew better than to go there that night.

I think the electricity came back on about noon on Thursday, and I think the phone did too. Late that day, the hiring manager for the job I had been interviewing for in Silicon Valley called me. She said the company wanted to offer me the position, and I accepted. She also said she had been trying to call me since Wednesday morning, but with no success.

Me in front of the San Francisco building
where UNIX Review had its offices, ca. 1989

I really needed to resign my job at UNIX Review before I left for Paris. I had heard on the radio that flight were starting to take off again from the airport. The runways had not been badly damaged in the earthquake, and neither had the terminals. The company in Silicon Valley needed me to start as soon as possible, which I needed to give notice as soon as possible at UNIX Review.

Friday morning, I again called the UNIX Review number, and this time somebody answered for the first time. The person I talked to said there had been significant damage — the hanging ceiling panels had fallen all around and a lot of computers had been thrown off desks and there was glass on the floors. Clean-up was under way and the building was open to employees, with one caveat: it was strictly "enter at your own risk."

"If you are nervous about the condition of the building, don't come to work," I was told. I asked in the editor and publisher of the magazine were there, and she said both of them had called and were on their way. I decided I'd better go in too.

The two editorial assistants I worked with were there as well when I got there. They had been in the building, working, on Tuesday afternoon when the quake hit. Elizabeth said she had gotten under her desk when the shaking started, and that the noise had been deafening. The ceiling tiles started falling and her computer monitor bounced off her desk, smashing onto the concrete floor. But the worst thing, she said, was that a big crack opened up in the wall behind her as she watched. She thought the whole building might come down on top of her.

I went to see the editor and told him I needed to talk to him and to Don, the publisher. Don told us to come to his office, which had survived pretty much intact. I told the two of them that I needed to tell them something important: I had decided to resign my job and leave the company.

Don, I remember, said, "Now Ken, you don't need to do that. We only rarely have earthquakes of this magnitude. It probably won't ever happen again in our lifetimes." He thought I was quitting and moving back to the East Coast because of the events of the past few days!

I explained that I had been offered a job in Silicon Valley and was giving my notice.

I went back home and finished packing. My plane was scheduled to take off around 6:30 p.m., and I was on it. I don't remember that it was particularly late departing.

When I arrived in France, I felt like a celebrity. I stayed with friends in Rouen for a couple of nights, and the drove on down to Grenoble for the conference. The covers of all the French news magazines and Paris Match splashed photos and big headlines about the San Francisco earthquake across their covers. I was a survivor. With my friends and at the conference, I had a lot of stories to tell.

Then Walt arrived and we left for what seemed like a very peaceful trip out through the French countryside.


  1. What a saga! I have always dreaded the idea of being in the middle of an earthquake. It must be truly awful! Glad you moved to quieter places :)

  2. Fascinating story. My brother was at the epicenter of the Northridge quake five years later - he tells a similar tale.

  3. And that company whose job you accepted was where we met! I was there at work for the earthquake, and it was scary! We were lucky in our part of Sunnyvale--never lost power or the phone. Many friends came over and watched TV at our house. I will never forget it.

    I love the picture of you from 1989, too, you good looking guy!


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