Four people were killed, but as ABC's Laura Marquez remembers, that number seems surprisingly small given the extent of the damage. Just a few minutes after the earthquake hit, a giant plume of smoke showed there was serious trouble.
ABC7 News crews were one of the first TV crews on the scene. What they found was stunning.
"I'm at the corner of Jefferson and Divisadero. You can see the building has collapsed. They don't know if people are still in there or if they aren't. You can see the fire down past me," Marquez said live from the scene. "People are running into this building that Randy is now showing you. And, they are looking for people. They are asking for people to come by. They are saying that people are still trapped in there."
People were being carried about. Emergency crews were trying to make rooms as victims were carried about. Others frantically tried to learn the fates of their friends and family.
Battalion Chief Rudy Castellanos was a rookie firefighter at the time.
"Firefighters left and right were going into buildings, searching for victims, putting themselves in harm's way. It was incredible to see. You feed off that," he recalled.
He also remembers the tremendous help from citizens who just happened to be nearby. Teams of volunteers ran hoses from a fire boat that was pumping sea water out of the bay. For hours, firefighters and volunteers combed dangerous buildings looking for survivors.
"People we never knew and they never knew us, but they carried us in their arms down the stairs," one elderly woman told a reporter.
The toughest rescues were in the buildings where the lower floors had completely collapsed. Retired firefighter Gerry Shannon vividly remembers one such rescue 20 years ago.
"There was a fire escape that came down here and there was a window below it. And, the window was down to about maybe 18 inches. And, I stuck my head in and yelled is anyone in there," he recalled.
A woman named Sherra Cox answered back. She was buried under two floors of rubble. The building was in danger of collapsing even more and there was a fire burning right next door. Gerry decided to go in anyway. It took two and a half hours to reach Sherra. Then, Gerry had to free her with a chainsaw.
"I gave her my coat to put over her face, my turnout coat. I took that off, because the splinters from the door were going right in her face and the blade was literally inches from her face," he recalled.
Sherra survived. She and Gerry became lifelong friends.
"I think he's the most wonderful young fireman, gentleman, who ever lived," she told ABC7.
Sherra passed away in June 2009. In her final few weeks, Gerry visited her almost every day.
"I never ever heard her complain. She even said, 'Hey, I've had 19 and a half years on the house.'"
In the days after the earthquake crews worked round the clock to restore utilities. There was serious damage to about 200 buildings. Many kept shifting as aftershocks hit and there were constant demolitions. Twenty years later Laura Marquez would stand in the spot where the biggest fire burned. There is a new building there now along with many others in the Marina, all built to modern codes. But, while the buildings got safer, many residents moved out.
Former resident Russ Taplin told ABC7, "Over the years, it essentially became from more of an elderly neighborhood to kind of a hip young person's neighborhood."
Taplin owned a condo in one of the buildings. Everyone got out alive but the building had to be torn down.
"A lot of people lost everything that they had," he told ABC7.
They managed to rebuild in less than two years. Russ moved in but he did not stay.
"I had to sell. I couldn't emotionally deal with earthquakes and that building," he said.
Art Agnos was mayor when the quake hit. Twenty years later his memories are of the courageous rescue effort, the shelters staffed by a tidal wave of volunteers, and the residents who took people into their homes.
"This kind lady, a perfect stranger took us in and she's a wonderful, wonderful person," recalled Eleanor Brady.
Restaurants donated meals. Union workers provided free labor. Crane operators tried to save peoples' belongings in the rubble.
Agnos remembered the city's collective efforts saying , "San Francisco proved to itself, and even more importantly to the people of this country and the world, that our politics may be progressive, our issues may be different than theirs, but when it comes down to the fundamental values of the American people, we are made of the right stuff."
Written and produced by Jennifer Olney
'89 QUAKE FULL COVERAGE:
Web exclusive content commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Loma Prieta quake. Includes extended interviews with reporters who covered the quake, as well as city officials and first responders who lived through it all.