'89 quake: A reminder of life before the Web


I recall being at Stanford Shopping Center when the ground shook violently. I had taken the day off to play tour guide to friends from Florida, and we went shopping after spending time at the Rodin sculpture garden on the Stanford campus.

I knew I had to check in and see where I was needed to report on the quake and damage. I also wanted to call in with details of what I had seen and felt in the Stanford area. But this was 1989. Cell phones were not widely in use. Figures I dug up indicate one million cell phones had been sold in 1989. Compare that to over 200 million today. I didn't have one. All I had was a pager hanging from my belt, outmoded now but a common tool in those days for keeping in touch.

What did people do? They stood in line at a pay phone at the shopping center -- and it was a very long line.

A pay phone?! There were millions of them in the 1980s and 90s, but the number is estimated to be in the 830,000 to 850,000 range today.

I gave up standing in line for the pay phone, eventually convincing a clerk at a clothing store to let me use their phone. With circuits busy or overloaded, it took a long time to get through to the station. With no spare crews to link up with me, I was told to keep in touch and to prepare for the long haul as our coverage plans evolved.

Computing was still in its early stages in 1989. Internet access and mobile computers had not yet come of age. So, to get details of what had happened, people gathered in the parking lot to listen to their car radios. That's where we got confirmation of rumors that had been circulating that a section of the Bay Bridge had collapsed and possibly a double-decker section of the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland. As we searched up and down the AM dial, hungry for news, we discovered that KCBS appeared to be off-frequency, not at its usual 740 spot on the tuner. We wondered if the earthquake had damaged its towers.

Imagine how different it would have been if we had had Twitter, Facebook, and SMS.

After hearing those radio reports, drivers were uncertain whether to get on the freeways to go home or not. How sound were the overpasses? Could they be the next to collapse? No one knew. Intuitively, everyone knew there would be no instant answers. It was already dusk, and as it became dark, the loss of power and lighting created a somber mood. Some people, including ourselves, decided to stay until more was known about the integrity of the freeways. A few of the restaurants remained open, relying on natural gas for cooking. So we had dinner. It was a strange way to spend the first hour or two after a major earthquake, still somewhat isolated from the world around us and the magnitude of the damage.

It gave me time to begin to digest what I had heard and learned in the early moments of Loma Prieta. One comment still resonates in my mind. A woman coming out of what was then the Emporium store told me, "You should see the china department. Everything crashed onto the floor, and there's broken china everywhere." At the time, I could see across to the Coach leather goods store, and all of its expensive bags were also on the floor. However, theirs was a soft landing compared to the china.

I also recalled a comment that my friends had made when I met them at the airport. "Oh, I hope I get to experience an earthquake while we're here," one said. He got his wish. Maybe he should have hoped to win the lottery. A few months later, the station produced a VHS documentary of the Loma Prieta earthquake, and I sent a copy to my friends. The one who had hoped to experience an earthquake admits he has never watched it. It was such an unsettling experience that he has never wanted to return to the Bay Area for another visit.

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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