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A Second Take on the Quake of '89
By Doug Konecky
"For the rest of our lives, we'll remember where we were when Mother Earth moved at 5:04 p.m. on the balmy evening of Oct. 17, 1989, setting off the most catastrophic California earthquake since 1906."
That is how reporter Jeff Kaliss began his story in the November 1989 Noe Valley Voice, describing the 7.1 Loma Prieta Earthquake, which occurred exactly 10 years ago this month. To commemorate the dubious anniversary of this event, the Voice decided to walk through Noe Valley in September 1999 and ask people if they really did remember what they'd been doing that night. We discovered several interesting facts:
In the first place, many stores that were doing business in 1989 are now gone. The rapid run-up of real-estate values that threatens to doom the folksy character of our once working-class neighborhood had not begun in earnest when the quake hit. Only about one in three stores on 24th Street 10 years ago are still around today, and many of the ones that remain are under different ownership.
Second, at least 10 million people remember being at the opening game of the 1989 World Series at Candlestick Park, a stadium that holds 55,000 people. Upon light pressure, several people admitted that maybe they hadn't been there, but their brother told them about it, or was it their brother's friend?
Third, everybody loves to talk about their earthquake experience. Our favorite recollection was from John Becker of Zephyr Real Estate. On Oct. 17, 1989, he was on the nude beach at Baker Beach, standing next to the shore. He felt the ground shake and then realized the shoreline was liquefying, gradually sinking him up to his knees in the sand. He looked up and saw palm trees waving back and forth. Becker's reaction to natural disaster was typical of many San Franciscans: "Wow! This is great!"
Misha Yagudin was playing poker in Emeryville. The lights went out, but nobody left the tables. As the ground shook, everyone's chips fell on the floor. Players dashed around gathering chips in the dark. When the quake was over, Yagudin had several dollars more than he'd started with.
Different people reacted in different ways. Panic and denial were popular. Jim Vlahakos, owner of Jim & Sons Produce at 24th and Church, was stocking his shelves when he noticed that the overhead light fixtures were shaking and the bottles of olive oil and juices that he had on a top shelf were falling onto the fruit bins below. Although he had experienced nasty earthquakes as a boy in Greece, Vlahakos panicked and ran out onto 24th Street, narrowly missing being run over by a truck.
When he told us this story, we looked up and remarked that Vlahakos still had the bottles on the same shelf on top of the fruit bins. "Oh, it probably won't happen again for a while," he said.
At Church Street Produce, Helen Winkler told us she was in I. Magnin on Union Square (another lost and lamented San Francisco tradition). She ran out onto the street and saw scads of people lying on the sidewalk having been hit by falling glass. Many people who were downtown reported the helplessness of watching glass falling out of windows and not knowing where to hide. It is remarkable that so few people were killed (6 in San Francisco; 63 in the entire quake area).
John Hilas, owner of Church Street Produce, said he heard a few seconds of loud rumbling, then felt the back-and-forth shake. Bottles fell off his shelves too, and he ran out the door and saw a brick wall crash into Church Street. He decided it was safer inside, and went back in and stood next to his cash register. A woman walked in a few minutes later, not realizing there had been an earthquake, and told Hilas she must have had a flat tire because her car was shaking so badly.
There were more and less frightening places to be. Several of the patrons in The Peaks bar on Castro Street said the lights went out but they kept right on drinking. No point in wasting good beer.
A far more frightening place to be was underneath a jacked-up house. Edsel Musni of Randall Street was standing under a home that he was renovating when the ground began rumbling and trees shaking. All he could think was "I might die here. But if I don't die, at least I don't have to work late tonight."
At Bell Market on 24th Street, Night Manager Rick Hardina remembers that the store lost practically everything. "One big difference between then and now is that now everything is plastic. Then it was still mostly glass," Hardina said. "Liquor was in Aisle 7 then, and I heard the bottles breaking against the floor. Liquids were puddling out from under all the fallen display cases. We herded everybody outside and cleaned up as fast as we could."
Luckily for local residents, Bell had received a truck full of batteries only the day before. The management of the market kept workers in the store all night, selling batteries, bottled water, diapers, and film. Neighbors lined up outside and paid with what they had. If they were out of cash, they got what they needed anyway, promising to pay later.
Some stores were hit harder than others. In the liquor store that is now Urban Cellars, one-third of the stock was shattered and lost. But on the same side of the street only a block away -- at 24th Street Cheese Company -- a huge pyramid of wine bottles stacked in the middle of the floor remained intact. Said Cheese Co. owner Charles Kung, "Not one bottle fell." Kung's total loss was a broken jar of olives. So now we know where to run during the next earthquake.
Everyone remembers that people were kind and understanding, in a kind of "shared disaster mentality."
Mike at Streetlight Records was a student at Lowell High School then, and he recalls 19th Avenue being totally gridlocked when the traffic lights stopped working. People got out of their cars and began helping direct traffic to keep it moving. The same thing happened all over San Francisco.
Helen Colgan walked home to Noe Valley from the Marina. It took her two hours. She also saw many people along Divisadero and Castro streets directing traffic while motorists happily obeyed their commands.
All in all, it must be said that Noe Valley suffered little. That semi-bedrock upon which we are perched came in handy when it counted. San Francisco historians know that the same was true in 1906. After the downtown city had burned to the ground, many people looked to rebuild their lives in neighborhoods that hadn't been damaged much. Noe Valley was one, and our first great building boom occurred in the post-quake period 1908 1920.
Look around you now. Is it a coincidence that the yuppie boom of the '90s followed so closely upon the heels of the Great Shake of October 1989?
Excerpts from the 1989 Earthquake Issue
The following piece by Marigrace Bannon was published on the front page of the November 1989 Noe Valley Voice, along with our news story on the Loma Prieta Earthquake -- which rumbled through the Bay Area for 15 long seconds on Oct. 17, 1989. The issue also contained a letter from Firefighter Terry Smith of Station 24 on Hoffman Avenue. Both pieces show how fortunate the residents of Noe Valley were, and how neighbors can come together to help one another in a crisis. To see the actual paper, check our archives at the Noe Valley Library on Jersey Street.
We Could See the Stars
On my block, 22nd Street, all was well. Neighborhood children skateboarded, walked in pairs, and held their parents' hand. The Victorian house across the street cast a golden glow from its bay window. The illumination from their kerosene lamps could be seen through their lace curtains. It felt like yesterday.
The air was still, and we could all see the stars. My neighbors and I sat on our stoop under the crimson and plum bougainvillea. We didn't know each other well. We were together. Alma brought us the news with her battery-operated radio, Marsha and I brought some cheer with our chardonnay. Strawberry sorbet appeared, rice crackers and conversation ensued. We all brought some light with our candles.
Together we learned about the bridge, the freeway, the Marina, the fires. We knew we were lucky. The darkened earthquake night slipped into early morning, and we slipped into our apartments, our beds, and our prayers. We were alive.
Oct. 17, 1989
Firefighters Tip Hats to Noe Neighbors
Dear residents of Noe Valley,
The firefighters at Engine Company No. 24, 100 Hoffman Ave., would like to thank all local residents who offered assistance and provisions to fellow San Franciscans -- and especially firefighters -- during our recent earthquake disaster.
Engine No. 24 has been busy assisting in disaster operations throughout the city and has spent little time in Noe Valley. When we did get back to our firehouse, the neighborhood residents overwhelmed us with food and drink to pull us through a couple of days when we had neither the time nor the access to shop for food and cook our meals.
The generosity of our neighborhood is an example of how altruistic and caring we are in time of need. Please come by the firehouse and visit us anytime so we can personally thank you and show you what we do and how we live.
Terry Smith, Firefighter, Engine Company No. 24
What Our Local Firefighters Have to Tell Us
By Rayne Wolfe
Firefighter Steve Kazarian, of Station 11 on 26th Street, was at home on Monterey Boulevard the day of the '89 quake. After the ground stopped shaking, he drove to Noe Valley to report for duty. "About 20 of us reported in that night," said Kazarian.
The first thing he noticed in Noe Valley was the crowds. "Everybody was standing around outside. It was a real hot, muggy day. People were in the streets and everybody was talking," he said.
Obviously, the damage wasn't too severe. "We had some collapsed bricks and chimneys on houses and storefronts along Church Street," and there was a small fire on Duncan Street, but no serious injuries or fatalities in this part of town.
For the rest of the night, Kazarian responded to calls in the Mission or elsewhere in the city. "I was in a crew sent to a three-alarm fire on Valencia Street. But at midnight most of the 'house' went down to where the buildings were collapsed and on fire in the Marina."
Both he and 26th Street firefighter Bob Cunningham credited the calm weather on Oct. 17, and the quick action of the city's fireboat crews, with keeping the fire damage to a minimum. "The quake proved how valuable the fireboats are," said Cunningham. "It could have been much worse that night if we hadn't had a lot of things going for us."
What do our local firefighters suggest we do before the next big one?
Z Keep a survival bag in an easily accessible place, like the trunk of your car.
Z Place a proper wrench or shut-off tool next to your water heater and gas outlets, and make sure you know how to turn off the gas. (But don't turn it off unnecessarily.)
Z Check the straps on your water heater. It's been 10 years. They could be loose or rusted.
Z When the quake hits, remember to duck and cover. More people in San Francisco were injured by falling glass than by any other means.
Z And although you could do worse things than stand in a doorway, firefighters now recommend crawling under a sturdy table or sheltered space.
Z Meanwhile, you could join a Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT). These are groups of citizen volunteers who have been "cross-trained" in basic emergency skills by the San Francisco Fire Department. In a major earthquake where police and fire services may be overwhelmed, NERT members can help put out fires, move debris, extricate people trapped in buildings, and give first aid to those who may be injured.
The Noe Valley NERT, which was formed two years after the '89 earthquake, is just now winding up a six-week training started in September. But you can enroll in a citywide course beginning Oct. 2 at John Adams School, 1860 Hayes St. (Classes are Saturday mornings, 9 a.m. to noon.) Call 558-3456 to sign up for this free course or to ask about future trainings.
Till then, you might want to talk to family, friends, and neighbors -- particularly the older residents on your block -- about what they plan to do in an emergency (and who'll bring what dish to the Y2K party). And one more thing: If there's room in your earthquake kit, throw in a camera. The Voice would welcome your one-of-a-kind quake snaps.
Things to Put in Your Survival Kit
First there was the devastating quake in Turkey. Then came Taiwan. After each, the Bay Area had a sympathy quake (5.0 and 4.2). Is somebody trying to tell us something? Time to repack that earthquake bag. Here's what to put in it:
You should have a crescent or pipe wrench to turn off gas and water valves. (Shut off the valves only if your house has sustained severe damage or you smell gas.)
Keep flashlights -- and batteries -- in several locations in case of a power failure.
Store three days' worth of drinkable water for you and your family (1 gallon per person per day), plus a disinfectant like chlorine bleach to help purify it.
Put your first-aid kit in a central place. Include a book of instructions.
Radio and Batteries
You'll need a portable radio so you can get emergency broadcasts and disaster news. A cell phone would also come in handy.
Dry or Canned Food
Store a week's supply of food for each person -- preferably food that doesn't require refrigeration or cooking. Don't forget a can opener.
Blankets, Clothing, Shoes
Put blankets, clothing, and a pair of shoes (and glasses) in your earthquake supplies box. Toss in a pen and paper and that novel you've been meaning to read.
It's a good idea to stash a few $20 bills and some quarters in a safe place. Note: the pay phones should work even if the regular phone lines are jammed.
Your household or business should have a fire extinguisher -- the kind that works for all types of fires. Make sure it's accessible.
Barbecue Grill or Stove
It's smart to have a grill -- and some charcoal and matches -- in case your gas and electricity are shut off. (If you use it, remember to cook outdoors only.)
More earthquake tips can be found on pages B6 and B7 of the San Francisco phone book.