Years from now, when someone asks me where I was when The Earthquake hit at 5:04 p.m. on Oct. 17, 1989, I'll be able to say, certainly without needing to refresh my memory, that I was in Candlestick Park, awaiting the start of the third game of the World Series between the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants. I realize, of course, that some 60,000 other people can truthfully say the same thing and that, as time passes, at least that many more will lie about being there, since that's the way it is with big events. People want to be where the action is.
But to tell the truth, Candlestick wasn't where the action was at all. And thank God for that. The maligned old bowl was jolted to its foundations, but when the quake had finished its dirty work, the Stick was still standing, which, tragically, is more than can be said for a section of the Bay Bridge, a mile-long stretch of the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland and 60 buildings in San Francisco's Marina district.
There was, in fact, something wholly unreal about being in the ballpark at that terrible moment. Before the quake struck, I was talking to a colleague in the upper-deck press seats about what another fine October day we were having in San Francisco and how television viewers, seeing all that sunshine, would surely never believe any more stories about Candlestick's being baseball's equivalent of a polar ice cap. I would once more have to explain to doubting visitors that unlike July and August, October in this city is generally warm, dry and still. Then, suddenly, it wasn't still anymore.
The entire stadium was reeling, and I watched as the television sets mounted on stands above the press tables swayed like giant cobras. "We're having a quake," I said with the studied nonchalance of a Bay Area native. When the rumbling finally ceased, some reporters, apparently regarding me as the resident disaster expert, asked what I thought this one would measure on the Richter scale. "Oh, maybe 5.4," I said, arriving at a figure which would indicate a tremor that was significant, but hardly, as it were, earthshaking. "Five-four, max."
That guess, I was soon to learn, was every bit as accurate as estimating Ty Cobb's career batting average at .225. This quake had hit 6.9 and was the largest in San Francisco since the 8.3 of 1906. But Candlestick fans couldn't have known that at the time, and when the shaking stopped, they let out an enormous cheer—in part, I'm sure, to demonstrate to outsiders their grace under pressure, and in part because they were just glad to be intact. Some even shouted, "Play ball!" But the scoreboard and the loudspeakers were off in Candlestick, and when police appeared on the field, the fans began to head for the exits in a manner both cheerful and orderly.
It was an odd moment. Here we all were in this huge concrete bowl, some of us perched nearly a hundred feet above ground, after being rocked by one of this country's biggest earthquakes on record, and we were acting as if we had been through nothing more extraordinary than a grammar school fire drill. As we left the stadium, a friend of mine said, "I've seen bigger crushes when someone at my house shouts, 'Let's eat!' at a family dinner." But none of us had any idea then how serious this thing was. By the time I was outside the stadium, the scare stories had already started: The bridges were all down, downtown was in ruins, thousands were dead, looting and rioting were widespread, the stadium was about to tumble down.
Even with all the wild rumors, I was convinced that conditions were not nearly as bad as they were being made out to be. I had been through enough earthquakes—even slept through a bunch of them—to know that they are invariably described, particularly by novices, as being much worse than they are. Earthquakes, for those who don't experience them regularly, are apparently the most frightening of all natural calamities, possibly because, unlike hurricanes, tornadoes and blizzards, they arrive with no advance warning. But from where I stood, behind Candlesticks centerfield stands, this one seemed no worse than the others. Five-four, max.
When we finally boarded a press bus to take us downtown, the driver told us we would be avoiding the Bayshore Freeway because of possible damage there and taking Third Street. Nothing unusual about that. A lot of experienced Giants fans routinely take Third Street to avoid traffic. But the driver advised us that because of the looting, bottle-throwing and even some shooting that had erupted in the mostly poor neighborhood, we should keep our heads below window level; I was beginning to believe the crazy talk was not so crazy. While our trip along Third was without violent incident, it was more than a little eerie, and even frightening, because all the lights were out. Downtown was even stranger, in an almost impenetrable darkness, recalling for me the blackouts of World War II during which, as a boy, I would peer excitedly from under the window shades in search of Japanese bombers. As we drove along, I could make out shards of glass coating the sidewalks. Entire blocks were cordoned off, and I could see fallen masonry in the street. Pedestrians—some not knowing where to go, others with no means of getting anywhere—huddled on street corners. Our driver, a true Samaritan, dropped his passengers off at hotels all over town and even took me within a block of my own candlelit apartment.
Inside, my wife, her nephew and some friends were watching news reports on a battery-powered television set. For the first time in hours, I could separate speculation from fact and see for myself the deadly power of the quake. It was like watching one of those dreadful disaster movies. The Marina, a middle-to upper-class neighborhood built largely on landfill, was by far the hardest hit part of San Francisco. There were films of the collapse of a section of the upper deck of the Bay Bridge that showed one car disappearing into a gaping hole. And reporters were then estimating that 250 people had been trapped in their cars and probably crushed to death when the Cypress Street Viaduct of the Nimitz Freeway fell apart.
It was a section of freeway I had driven countless times. My son, who works in the East Bay, travels it five times a week. My daughter, who lives in Berkeley, uses it to drive to school. Both called that night. Both were safe. We had all been lucky. My own apartment had suffered no more than a crack in the wall and some broken crystal. But I went to bed that night feeling a terrible queasiness, which not even a shot of brandy could cure.