Oakland's Cypress freeway suffered the most dramatic damage. The upper deck collapsed onto the lower deck, creating a 1.25-mile stretch of death and destruction and killing 42 people.
But along with the loss, came a second chance for the west Oakland neighborhood.
"We immediately understood that this was an opportunity to do something about re-routing the freeway," said community activist Paul Cobb.
And re-route it they did. The freeway that divided the neighborhood with noise and pollution since the 1950s was replaced with a wide open, tree-lined roadway named the Mandela Parkway. The freeway now runs around the perimeter of the neighborhood.
"I think that since the Loma Prieta quake we've learned that we don't want to build any more double-decker anything," said Jose Luis Moscovich, head of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority.
San Francisco's Embarcadero freeway was a double-decker just like the Cypress. The quake left it standing, but was the inspiration to tear it down.
The 1.2-mile freeway ran along the city's waterfront with off-ramps making it a key artery to Chinatown and North Beach. Those neighborhoods fought to have the freeway rebuilt. The mayor at the time, Art Agnos, led a successful fight to get rid of it.
The looming freeway is gone, replaced with a surface-level expressway designed with pedestrians in mind.
The ferry building was remodeled with restaurants and boutiques.
"We used the opportunity created by this terrible physical disaster and made San Francisco stronger and better at the broken places," said Agnos.
San Francisco's Central freeway is also gone. The elevated structure cutting across Market Street with ramps at Gough, Fell and Franklin was torn down, restoring sunlight to neighborhoods robbed of it for decades.
The freeway now touches down at Market and Octavia where a tree-lined boulevard is anchored with a park.
"That whole Hayes Valley area is a jewel in our city with wonderful shops because we took down a freeway that shouldn't have been there in the first place," said Agnos.
On the Bay Bridge, a section of the upper deck on the cantilever section came unhinged. The deck below also broke loose. Both sections were held up by a substation beneath them. One woman died after the car she was in plunged off the broken upper deck.
Caltrans spokesperson Bart Ney says expansion joints on the 70-year-old bridge did just what they were supposed to -- they just weren't designed to handle a quake of that magnitude.
"Had the earthquake gone on much longer, you would have seen much more failure on the structure as you headed back towards the Oakland shore," said Ney.
Twenty years later, a new bridge on the Oakland side of Yerba Buena Island is still not done. Debate over what that new bridge would look like stalled the project from getting off the ground. Completion of the bridge is expected in 2013.
The entire western side of the bridge is finished with retrofitting and replacements. A portion of the double-deck western approach remains, with foundations isolated to move independently in a quake.
"For the rest of it, we used the same footprint of the old Embarcadero freeway that we took away and we split the deck so that you're side by side," said Ney.
The total cost for fixing the Bay Bridge is $5.7 billion.
San Francisco International Airport had to shut down operations when the quake hit. The international and northern terminals suffered the most damage. The worst damage was in the control tower.
Former airport spokesperson Ron Wilson was leaving work when the quake hit.
"It was complete devastation in the control tower and the thick glass walls of the control tower, many of them cracked, a couple of them broke out and fell to the catwalks below because the tower is nine stories up," he said.
The tower has been retrofitted and there is a brand new international terminal. It was built solely to keep up with growth of international travel and was designed to withstand a big quake, but is as yet, untested.
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.