Quake rescue results in 20-year friendship


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I'll never forget the images from that night, the Marina District full of collapsed buildings, fire burning out of control, and frantic residents trying whatever they could to help.

A four-story building was knocked down to one. Underneath was a desperate woman, trapped and terrified. "I was wide awake the whole time," said quake survivor Sherra Cox.

Incredibly, Sherra lived to tell the story. She was in her apartment, tuning in to the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A's, when the shaking started.

"Just as I braced myself in the doorway, the walls caved in toward the middle and the ceiling fell down on top of me," she said.

She could not move, but someone heard her tapping on a pipe and alerted firefighter Gerry Shannon. Twenty years later, Gerry met us at the spot where Sherra's building used to be.

"There was a fire escape that came down here and there was a window below it," he said. "And the window was down to about maybe 18 inches and I stuck my head in and yelled is anybody in there."

Sherra answered back. There was a fire burning next door and Sherra's building was in danger of complete collapse, but Gerry decided to go in anyway.

"It's incredible, the courage that he showed," said Sherra.

It took Gerry two and a half hours to cut a tunnel through the debris. A Hollywood movie called "After the Shock" later dramatized what it was like inside that building. Sherra and Gerry kept talking the whole time.

"It was amazing," explained Gerry about what it was like to first make physical contact with Sherra. "At first I thought I did it and then I started looking at the things and I realized I haven't done anything. I got to her, but now how do we get her out?"

Gerry had to cut around Sherra with a chainsaw.

"I gave her my coat to put over her face, my turnout coat," he said. "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."

At the same time, the fire next door was spreading.

"They were on the roof trying to keep a water curtain to stop it from advancing, but it was still advancing and they were giving me updates as far as time," said Gerry.

Somehow Gerry managed to drag Sherra out of the building. Her hip and pelvis were crushed, but she refused to get in the ambulance until she got Gerry's name.

"There will never be anybody like that again," she said.

Days later, Sherra watched from her hospital bed as the World Series resumed. Gerry and other heroes from the earthquake threw out ceremonial first balls.

After the rescue, Sherra and Gerry became local celebrities.

"When the citizens come by and give us thumbs up and wave and smile, that's a reward," said Gerry.

They testified in Sacramento, urging lawmakers to provide better resources for firefighters. The movie about their story brought them even more attention.

"We're embedded in San Francisco," said Gerry. "It's our town and we'll be here together."

When I caught up with them 10 years ago, they talked about how their brush with death changed them.

"There's an awakening to how important is a big car, nice house? And my family, from then on... they mean a lot and I appreciated them more from that day on," said Gerry.

"It makes you calm down," said Sherra. "You stop and smell the roses."

Sherra never did walk on her own again, but she kept her passion for life until she passed away last June. During her final weeks, Gerry was with her almost every day.

"I never ever heard her complain," he said. "She even said, 'Hey, I've had 19 and a half years on the house."

When you walk through the Marina now, it's hard to believe there ever was an earthquake there. But for those of us who lived through it, it's a night we'll never forget.

For Gerry it was the beginning of a precious friendship that will stay with him forever.

'It was a gift. It really was."

PROGRAMMING NOTE: Join us for a one-hour retrospective on the devastating Loma Prieta earthquake on Saturday, October 17 at 10 p.m. and Sunday, October 18 at 7 p.m. We'll look back at the damage, how the Bay Area was forever changed, and what still must be done today to prepare for the next "big one."

SPECIAL 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.

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