07 April 2007


Nearly a year had gone by since our 1988 trip to France. The people in Grenoble asked me to come back for the second year of their UNIX conference, and I knew the drill this time. Walt and I were talking about the road trip we would take.

Then Tuesday afternoon, October 17, 1989, came around. The San Francisco Giants were playing the Oakland Athletics in the baseball World Series, and the game that afternoon was supposed to start at 5:00 in San Francisco.

I was at my friends’ house in Sunnyvale, in the heart of Silicon Valley, to watch the beginning of the game. I was scheduled to leave for Paris on Friday the 20th. Cheryl and I were talking about the upcoming trip — she lived in Paris for a year in the 1970s — as we watched the pre-game show on TV and waited for her husband John to get home from work.

That’s when everything started shaking. Well, bouncing up and down, actually. I was confused. I remember getting out of my chair, standing up and saying “What in the hell is going on?” The electricity went off, so there went the TV. The aluminum-framed windows were rattling violently, and glass things were falling and breaking on the kitchen floor, 15 feet away.

Cheryl answered my question — calmly, I thought: “Well, I think it’s a really big one.” Earthquake, she meant, and I think I understood. I sat back down. We had had several small earthquakes over the previous year or two, but nothing like this.

A big bookshelf fell over face-first in the living room right then, dumping not just books and knick-knacks on the floor, but also a couple of big potted plants that Cheryl had just watered. Mud spread across the beige carpet. We saw it fall but we weren't in its way.

The clatter was deafening. “What are we going to do?” I shouted. “Just sit here, I guess,” Cheryl said. We held hands and just waited for the shaking to stop. I kept wishing it would.

Right outside the family room door was the swimming pool. The sliding glass door out to the patio was open about a foot. As we sat there bouncing up and down, I noticed that the water was swirling and sloshing around. I think I heard it making slurping, gurgling noises.

The earthquake came in three big surges, I believe. The first two pushed water up from the deep end toward the shallow end of the pool — toward where we were siting. I could actually see “waves” passing through the ground itself, raising up the surface of the concrete patio around the pool as if it were liquid.

On the third surge, a large amount of water rose up from the deep end of the pool. It turned into a wave as it got to the shallow end, and then the water was pushed out of the pool with great force. The wave crashed into a wall that projected it back toward the house and the sliding glass door. In my mind, I still see it as a breaker on the ocean. It broke on the patio, and the water came splashing in through the open door and soaked the carpet between us and the dark TV set.

Then it stopped. It had lasted 15 seconds, according to the experts. It had seemed like 15 minutes. If I hadn’t seen that wave come up out of the swimming pool, I would never have understood the force of nature that an earthquake represents.

John drove into the driveway a few minutes after the shaking ended. With him, we walked around outside to see if the chimneys were still standing, and to see if the patio or pool concrete had cracked. It hadn’t. I couldn’t believe it. Everything outside looked fine.

Inside was a mess. The TV hadn’t fallen over, but that bookcase had. And the quake had thrown open the kitchen cabinets, tossed their contents onto the counters and floor below, and then slammed the doors shut again. There was a lot of broken glass and spilled food on the floor, but the cabinet doors were closed neatly.

While the three of us were inside surveying the damage, the shaking started again. We ran outdoors, remarking on how dumb it had been to sit there next to that big plate glass door during the worst of the quake. Then the electricity came back on. The aftershocks were tapering off, we thought.

What was I doing in Sunnyvale anyway? Why wasn’t I at work in San Francisco? Well, that afternoon I had had an interview for a new job. It was with the software company that Cheryl worked for — she had recommended me. It looked like a good bet, and I was planning to resign my job at UNIX Review later that week, before heading off to Paris and Grenoble.

With the electricity the TV came back on. The TV and radio traffic helicopters were up in the air, surveying not traffic but the damage on this day. Candlestick Park, with the thousands of fans inside it, had not collapsed, though the baseball fans were in shock like everybody else. There was a big fire raging in San Francisco, about a mile from where Walt and I lived.

Walt was in Berkeley, I assumed. There was not way to contact him. Besides, the phones were dead.

On TV, a traffic helicopter flew over our apartment building in downtown San Francisco. I saw it, and it was still standing. I told Cheryl and John that I needed to go home. We talked about whether I’d be able to make it. The sensible thing, of course, would have been to stay there.

But I had visions of looters stealing everything Walt and I owned. I had to get back to the city and see what condition our apartment was in. “If the overpasses have collapsed onto the freeway,” I told Cheryl and John, “I’ll just turn around and come back.”

At that point, it didn’t seem likely that I was going to be able to fly off to Paris later in the week.


  1. Wow, what a vivid memory you have! I had forgotten a lot of it. I do remember the sound of glass shattering and the wave entering and receding from the house and the mud, among other things. Thank heavens there haven't been any earthquakes of that magnitude since that day.

  2. My God. What an awfull thing to have to go through. I remember watching the TV, feeling safe, in Tampa. It is really great that you, nor Walt, were hurt.


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