Tuesday, October 17, 1989 is a day I will never forget. I thought for sure that it was going to be the end of my life, at the ripe old age of 19, as the Loma Prieta earthquake struck the San Francisco Bay area.
In February of that year, I had joined the U.S. Navy, with a guarantee to be stationed on a ship based out of the East Coast [Spoiler Alert: I ended up being stationed on shore duty in California]. I decided to become a Mess Management Specialist, which involved anything food related, managing the barracks, and on some bases – security. My schooling was in San Diego which was a complete 180 from being in Great Lakes, Illinois in the middle of winter. Upon graduation from the 8-week school, I was assigned to be a cook at Oakland Naval Hospital, with the caveat of being linked to the hospital ship, USNS Mercy. If the Mercy had to be deployed for some reason, I would be shipped out and it would still be considered “shore duty”. But, what are the odds of that happening? (Spoiler Alert: it happened – Desert Shield/Desert Storm anyone?).
In September 1989, I moved off base and into an apartment with a couple of roommates who I had become friends with. They were corpsmen at the hospital, and would give me a ride in on the days I worked. On October 17, I was up at 4am and drove in to the hospital with one of my roommates. He was working his normal job on the hospital ward and we both had to be in at 5am.
It was an exciting time in the Bay Area as the Oakland A’s and San Francisco Giants were playing against each other in the World Series. It was the first ever Bay Bridge Series, and I was there for it. Game 3 was to be played on that night. We all were going to do everything we could to finish working as early as possible to get home to watch the game. We normally stopped serving dinner at 6pm (1800 hours), and it could take anywhere from 30-60 minutes to clean up after. We were hoping to be less than 30 minutes on this day.
At 5:04 (aka 1704 hours), as I was walking through the kitchen/galley getting ready to clean up, it sounded like there was a train quietly rumbling towards us. The sound was getting louder and louder, and then I could feel the building start to shake. Then the hospital started shaking more and more violently. It was starting to shake so much that I had to hold myself up against a big metal table. There was a row of ovens behind me, and their doors were falling open (Luckily, they were empty). Then it felt like the whole ground was going to crumble apart under my feet, and the whole hospital was going to collapse on top of us. It was dinner time, so there were quite a few people in the cafeteria, and several people screamed. After what felt like an eternity, the shaking slowed to a stop. The earthquake lasted around 15 seconds, but I could swear that it was really 15 minutes. When everything became still, there were people who cheered. I don’t know if they were cheering because we were all still in one piece, or if they were just sick and cheered as if it was an amusement park ride. There may have been both types of people there. About 15 minutes after that giant quake, there was an aftershock that was even worse than some earthquakes. A lot of people freaked out and screamed again. I saw one person in the cafeteria drop to his knees and do the sign of the cross. Luckily, the aftershock only lasted for a couple of seconds. I remember that there were still aftershocks occurring a few weeks after the earthquake.
We put on whatever radios we could find, and we found out that a part of the Bay Bridge collapsed, and that the Cypress Freeway had collapsed. The Bay Bridge was a giant bridge between Oakland and San Francisco. There were two levels. Each level had 5 lanes. The upper level went West to San Francisco, and the lower level went East to Oakland. A large section of the upper portion of the bridge collapsed on to the level below it.
The Cypress Freeway was in much worse condition. This freeway was over 1 ½ miles of highway structures with multiple levels. A large section of the freeway collapsed, crushing dozens of cars and trucks, which resulted in 42 deaths and dozens more injured.
We got news that we may be getting a lot of patients brought to our hospital. All the corpsmen and doctors and nurses had to be called in. While we were waiting for them to come in, some of us cooks got a quick training on how to carry a stretcher so we could bring patients in from an ambulance. In addition to us cooks, some people from other departments waited outside near the emergency entrance. As we waited, we listened to the news come in about all the damage.
Only one ambulance came in while I was waiting, and I didn’t have to carry the person in as all of us jumped into action at the same time, and only two people needed to move the stretcher. Things could have been much worse. The highways that had collapsed normally would have been bumper-to-bumper with cars and trucks. But since it was near game time for the World Series, there were a lot of people who were either at the game at Candlestick Park, or they had left work early, or they were staying late to have parties at work. 63 people in total died, and 3,757 were injured.
I left work around 12:30 am and got home around 1:00 am. This was at a time when people did not really have cell phones, and my family was on the East Coast. So, it was 4:00 am on the East Coast when I got home, and I was debating whether I should call my family at that hour. I decided that I had better do it, and it was a good decision. My mother answered the phone on the first ring!
In the days and weeks that followed, I witnessed something amazing – a community rising up to help one another. Many people went to the collapsed Cypress Freeway to help rescue or recover those that were trapped in the rubble. Several of my hospital corpsmen friends went to the site as volunteers on their day off. Restaurants donated food for the workers and for people who were stranded due to the roads on their route being unstable. It was inspiring seeing so much goodwill. It was my first exposure to community service at this level. My heart still swells when I see a community come together for good, whether it be the running community, with which I am involved, or the community to every charity I have come across on my Rhode Runner journey so far.