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San Francisco 9-1-1 Dispatch Tapes
October 17, 1989
Nothing caught the drama and confusion which initially followed the earthquake better than the 9-1-1 dispatch recordings. The Hall of Justice, at 850 Bryant St., sits on the edge of Marina-like Bay fill. The shaking was so terrible that some dispatchers fled, and others became ill. Damage to the building was significant enough that some felt that the dispatch center must be evacuated.

Compounding the terror was the failure of electricity, as well as the automatic generator that was supposed to power the 9-1-1 center. Shaken, in the dark, and fearing that the Hall of Justice might collapse, these few dispatchers attempted to handle the flood of 9-1-1 calls – that was somewhat diminished because the Pacific Bell generator caught fire at the McCoppin Street telephone office which transfers emergency lines to the Hall, as well as to other emergency departments.

This tape, from the SFPD logging recorder, begins moments before the earthquake. There is a gap in the recording, just after the earthquake, because of the power failure. However, the tape restarts when the Hall's generator finally kicks in. Five-minutes of call highlights from 9-1-1 recordings can be heard here. The full fourteen-minute 9-1-1 recording, as transcribed, can also be heard here.

DISPATCHER: Oh, my God, we're having an earthquake – wait a minute, hold on – hold on. Can you feel that?

CALLER: Yes, I sure can.

DISPATCHER: Okay, this is interesting. There go the lights. Oh, s–t! (clamor of metal dispatch consoles rattling and banging in background before tape stops from power failure.)

Dispatcher: 911 Emergency.

Caller: Yes, this is 538 Congo Street. The man across the street was painting a house and he fell off the ladder, so we I need an ambulance.

Dispatcher: Hold on, I'll transfer you - stay on the line. (fast busy signal or reorder during transfer attempt to Central Emergency Hospital dispatch.)

Dispatcher: Ma'am?

Caller: Yes?

Dispatcher: That line's busy.

Caller: Oh, f–k!

Dispatcher: 911 Emergency.

Caller: Yes, have you gotten word about the Bay Bridge?

Dispatcher: What about the Bay Bridge? What's wrong with it?

Caller: The upper deck appears to have collapsed during the earthquake.

Dispatcher: "S–t! Hold on a second! Jesus Christ! We gotta report that right away! That might have collapsed on the CHP!

(fast busy signal.)

Elderly woman calling.

Dispatcher: 911 Emergency.

Caller: It is over yet? 'Cause it don't seem like I can't take much more.

Dispatcher: Ma'am, I know...just hang in there. It's...it's...we hope the worst part is over. The lights are out, the power's out, just hang tight, okay? And it's Ma'am...just hang in there, okay?

Everybody else is scared, too, but we can't...we just don't have the time to stay on the line. So, do this, just make sure your lights are out and if you know where to turn off the gas in your house go turn that off, okay? Make sure you have some fresh water for yourself, okay?

Caller: Okay.

Dispatcher: Okay, so hang in there. It's going to be all right. All right?

Dispatcher: 911 Emergency.

Caller: Yeah, they're going to need help on 220 Front Street.

Dispatcher: Okay, what happened?

Caller: The building fell.

Dispatcher: Okay, is anyone unconscious?

Caller: Um, we can't even tell if there's anyone in the building.

Dispatcher: Are there people trapped under rubble or something like that?

Caller: (turning away from the phone) Do you know if anyone's trapped in there? (Second person in distance:) I don't know because I'm not going to go near it.

Caller: No one can even go near it. I mean, whole building went down!

Dispatcher: Okay, we'll get someone right out. Two-twenty Front, I got it.

Caller: Thank you.

Dispatcher: All right, bye bye.

This call began moments before the first large aftershock.

Dispatcher: 911 Emergency.

Caller: My whole house is tore up! Should I take my kids outside?

Dispatcher: Your whole house what?

Caller: It's tore up! Everything's tore up, should I take my kids outside?

Dispatcher: Yeah, that would be a good idea because here comes another one!

Dispatcher: 911 Emergency (woman speaking extremely rapidly)

Caller: Hello! We have an emergency here right now!

Dispatcher: Where?

Caller: 1250 Geneva Avenue. The water pipe is flooding. It broke, I guess, and it's flooding the building and the building is cracking!

Dispatcher: Okay, Ma'am, I need you to calm down, okay? The Fire Department is not going to be there immediately. They're going to fires right now. I need you to organize and get everybody out of the building and we will be there as soon as we can. 1250 Geneva?

Caller: Yes

Dispatcher: If the building is flooding... .

Caller: It's an apartment building.

Dispatcher: Is it elderly? (people)

Caller: Yes.

Dispatcher: Okay, if you can you need to get it...How many... .

Caller: We can't use the phones! The phones are all out of order!

Dispatcher: Can yo go door to door?

Caller: I went to the next door two doors down there, because...Their line is busy!

Dispatcher: Okay ma'am, ma'am, I need you to calm down. How many people are in the building?

Caller: Right now there's, let's see...one, two, three, four, five. I just come home and I... .

Dispatcher: Can you ma'am, can you go to everybody's door and help them get out?

Caller: I went to my neighbor upstairs and she didn't know about it! The pots and pans are flying all over the place!

Dispatcher: Okay, ma'am, ma'am, ma'am. It's over. The earthquake is over. You need to help get your neighbors out of the building if the building is flooding.

Caller: Okay.

Dispatcher: There's five elderly people?

Caller: Yes.

Dispatcher: Okay, I need you to go door to door and get the people out.

Caller: All right.

Dispatcher: Okay. Thank you.

Man on phone has reported minor broken window and requested the Fire Department.

Dispatcher: Sir! Listen to me.

Caller: Yeah?

Dispatcher: The whole city is experiencing an emergency crisis at this time. If nobody's hurt find some way to barricade this window on your own. In the meantime, the whole city is going chaotic right now, okay?

Caller: All right.

Dispatcher: Okay, thank you... .

Caller: The Fire Department isn't available?

Dispatcher: The Fire Department is busy answering fires. They're doing everything they can right now.

Caller: Are there any fires?

Dispatcher: Yes there was fires. Sir, I have to hang up the line now, okay?

Caller: All right.

Dispatcher: Thank you.

Dispatcher: 911 Emergency

Caller: Yes, can you please tell me how to handle this? There's somebody stuck in the elevator.

Dispatcher: Okay, the Fire Department usually handles that. It's really backed up... .

Caller: Oh God, I don't know where to call.

Dispatcher: Yeah, I know, and you don't have any (electrical) energy, right?

Caller: No.

Dispatcher: The lights are out. Okay. That's going to be a problem, um, the Fire Department - I can't connect you because they're...they're backed up, I mean they have so many calls for services. We don't know what to do. Jeez. What's the address there?

Caller: 333 Kearny.

Dispatcher: Okay, I'll pass it on to them, okay, and then they're going to have to get to it when they can, okay?

Caller: Okay.

Dispatcher: 911 Emergency

Caller: Yes, do you know how long the lights... .

Dispatcher: We have absolutely no idea. The entire city is down with this, ma'am.

Caller: Do you know how strong the quake was?

Dispatcher: S–t ma'am, right now we've got fires and buildings down. Okay, so stay inside away from windows. Keep everybody together.

Dispatcher: 911 Emergency

Caller: Yeah, hi. I need an ambulance please.

Dispatcher: Okay, Okay. How serious is the injury?

Caller: Several people are hurt and I don't know how extensive they are.

Dispatcher: Okay. Jesus, okay. Is there any way you can drive them to the hospital.

Caller: I'm not there. Somehow somebody got...told me to get to a phone and call for an ambulance. It's a store and everybody's hurt.

Dispatcher: Okay, what's the address, what's the address.

Caller: 855 Harrison.

Dispatcher: 855 Harrison?

Caller: Uh-huh.

Dispatcher: Uh, s–t. Okay, I'm going to try and transfer you to the ambulance. If they're not able to get to you because the whole city is going chaotic at this time... .

Caller: Yea, I'm sure.

Dispatcher: Find a way to get these people to a hospital. I'll try to transfer you.

Caller: Okay.

Phone rings four times, and continues to ring as the dispatcher says:
Ma'am, they're probably not going to answer. If you can go back and see if you can transport these people to the hospital. Okay?

Caller: Okay.

Dispatcher: 911 San Francisco Emergency

Caller: Emergency, I reside at 1782 Fifteenth Street and, as you know, there was a severe earthquake. But, I'm concerned about someone that's sitting outside and the person is in total shock. She won't say anything to anybody, she's just crying. She's in shock and we don't know what to do for her.

Dispatcher: Okay ma'am, the best thing is go wrap a blanket around her. There's not a whole lot we can do. I've got to get off this line and see if there's anybody else who needs help. Go out there and wrap a blanket around her, and remember to stay in doorways and under solid things, okay?

Caller: Okay.

This call is received on the direct line from the Highway Patrol office at 8th and Harrison Streets, one block from the Hall of Justice.

CHP: We're losing 280. We need all the ramps to 280 closed, if you've got any available units close the traffic coming on to 280 extension up by Sixth Street. It's going down.

Dispatcher: What's going down? The ramp is?

Chp: The ramp is. It's collapsing!

Dispatcher: Okay, hold on, I'll tell 'em right now.

Chp: Thank you.

Dispatcher: 911 San Francisco Emergency

Caller: I need to know, did any...I just heard that something happened to the Bay Bridge.

Dispatcher: I heard that too, but I can't confirm it.

Caller: Do you know if there was anything serious? My dad is supposed to be coming at this time.

Dispatcher: Honey, I'm not going to scare you. I don't know yet. Okay, I want you to calm down. I don't know, okay? All's I heard is that the upper deck collapsed.

Caller: (sobs and crying)

Dispatcher: I don't know if it's true or not, okay?

Caller: (crying) Okay, thanks a lot.

9-1-1 Dispatcher places a call to Central Emergency Hospital dispatch on a direct line.

CEH: Yes police.

Male dispatcher: I know you guys are busy. Can you add to your list, 1095 Mission, number 504?

CEH: Okay, hold on a second.

Female dispatcher: Let me talk too.

Male dispatcher: Okay, you talking to me?

Female dispatcher: Yea, are you CEH?

Male dispatcher: No.

Female dispatcher: Oh.

Male dispatcher: This is Ben.

Female dispatcher: This is who?

Male dispatcher: Ben!

Female dispatcher: Ben, hi. You talking to CEH?

Male dispatcher: Yes I am.

Female dispatcher: Okay, okay, after you're done... .

CEH: Hello?

Male dispatcher: 1095 Mission, number 504, they've got a guy trapped...they can't open the door, they think he's dead inside. He's stuck between the door.

CEH: Okay, what is the apartment number?

Male dispatcher: 504 at 1095 Mission.

CEH: Number 504.

Male dispatcher: That's right.

CEH: They think it's a... .

Male dispatcher: Well, there's a body there. They can't open the door due to the body there.

CEH: Is there any reason that make them think he's dead. Is there any smell or anything?

Male Dispatcher: No, no, it's due to the earthquake thing.

CEH: So, it's an unknown?

Male Dispatcher: Unknown at this time.

CEH: Okay, we can try and send Fire, but they're as busy as we are....

Male dispatcher: I know, we're the same. I'm just...put it on your list if you can.

CEH: This is going to be low priority.

Male dispatcher: You got it.

Female dispatcher: Can I ask you something?

CEH: Yea.

Female Dispatcher: Did you have something going to Sixth and, what is it, Townsend?

CEH: Sixth and Townsend?

Female Dispatcher: We ordered it a little while ago. Just wondering if you had one.

CEH: I don't see Sixth and Townsend.

Female Dispatcher: Okay, hold on. (keying police radio transmitter) Unit requesting Sixth and Townsend 408? [an ambulance]. Boy 103, did you have a Sixth and Townsend request?

Boy 103: 10-4. That's best way to get in there is Sixth and Townsend, and the Fire Department and police will direct them to where the injured parties are... (Boy 103 is then covered by an unidentified officer who says) They had requested two ambulances.

Female Dispatcher: What's the level of injury, because they have their lists of priorities up here too. They're going crazy.

Unidentified Police Unit: It's going crazy out here.

Female Dispatcher: Yea, what kind of injury? (no answer in few second so she says to CEH dispatcher on phone:) Okay, well, Sixth and Townsend, you know, put it on there definitely. They had requested two ambulances.

CEH: Uh-huh

Female Dispatcher: Okay, so, I don't know. Try...try middle priority.

CEH: Sixth and Townsend, Code 2. All right.

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