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5:04 p.m., on the phone discussing traffic handling arrangements for the World Series, when all of the sudden the room began to move in a most scary manner. I told Scott (he was on the other end of the line) that I thought we were having an earthquake and hung up! I tried to get under my door, but after looking up and seeing all that glass, I tried to get back under my desk. No luck, I wound up in the outer office.

When the building stopped shaking, I looked down the hall (the lights were still on) and could not see anything, that is, damage. But, I kept hearing--thump, thump, thump, etc., but nothing was in sight. All of the sudden, the lights went out and then I could see the fallen plaster, marble, and lots of plaster dust. The reason I could not see earlier was that the plaster dust acted like fog and, as long as the lights were on, one could not see through the cloud of dust.

I organized the secretaries and, after searching the adjacent offices, led them down the stairs and out of the building.

At the time, I do not recall a special awareness of the damage in the building, except to note that there would be a lot of work for the custodians.

I have described the E.O.C. elsewhere, but the professional calm that pervaded the building and the people in it was very contagious. I do not think that anyone made a special effort not to panic, but all reacted very responsibly and with an extreme confidence. Many of the things that I saw that were noteworthy included:

  • Two hours of driving through Chinatown, North Beach, and the Tenderloin, without seeing a single person and, most notably, no damage; this in the eerie predawn light of October 18th, with no electricity or street lights.
  • Rumplestiltskin and his wife at the corner of Second and Mission streets looking for a party.
  • Watching a building for signs of movement, looking away for just a second, and turning around to see it collapsed by one floor before the dust had started to rise.
  • A totally dark San Francisco, except for scattered headlights and the flashing lights of emergency vehicles.
  • Joe Di Maggio, the Yankee Clipper, waiting in line to find out about a building in the Marina (I had forgotten how old we both are!).
  • Miniature Victorians shaken off their foundations on Shotwell Street.
  • Angry people waiting for information about their homes.
  • Tourists with VCR's, cameras of all sorts, and just plain curious people with almost a ghoulish nature trying to get a better view of the damage.
  • Newscasters being most respectful of people's losses and others being just the opposite, like the one that had to film a very private memorial service.
  • A very large cat in front of a dangerous building. The cat, later named "Demo", was finally lured to safety and the building was torn down.
  • A Building Inspector helping two elderly ladies from their building and carrying a bird in a bird cage.
  • The almost continuous sound of sirens that kept intruding on few very precious moments of quiet.
  • Sudden discovery of damage, either in the street, or to some building (a little gray warehouse on Tehama Street or an apartment house at 7th and Judah).
  • Cars that have been crushed to an indescribable shape without hope of repair.
  • People at the edge of a demolition site with a helper from the Conservation Corps sorting through the rubble in search of possessions, and finding precious little.
  • Requisitioning shopping carts from the Marina Safeway for the Marina residents to transport their belongings.
  • Meeting the President.

Many people responded with kindness and a lot were completely overwhelmed by their losses. At the Marina Middle School, where we had established a Field Command Post, people were first told about the condition of their properties. Some reacted with stoic calm and others could not handle the bad news. I remember a most dramatic scene of a Building Inspector consoling one who had lost all.

We tried to utilize people in those roles that they were trained for, but were not always successful. We were eventually able to get some social workers to sit with those that had experienced severe losses to help, them cope with their situation.

Meals, some on the run and some to run from. Cold pizza sitting on a shelf. Lots of fresh fruit, soft drinks, and bottled water. The people from Project Open Hand were really great. They brought in hot food that had good flavor and was filling. I remember my first really good meal, it was later in the week and I was really hungry. They brought in some hot pasta. It smelled good! But there were no utensils. After looking around for a couple of minutes, I just started in with my fingers. I decided that I could not wait for someone go out and get a fork and let my meal get cold. Gradually, we all settled into a survival mode that let us eat when hungry, generally food that was edible and somewhat warm. Fortunately, the conditions returned to normal after a couple of weeks so no one suffered too much.

Traveling around the City was deceiving. You could drive for blocks and not see any damage. And then in the Marina, parts of the Mission and South of Market, there was a lot of damage every block. once in a while, you might find some by surprise. I remember driving north on Clayton Street and spotting a car parked at the curb. It was a VW with the top caved in. I got out to see why. There was a pile of bricks piled neatly on the sidewalk beside it. Then I looked up. The bricks had come off the side of the building. Another time we were looking at a badly damaged building on Front Street. Just over the top of it, I thought I saw a partially-damaged brick wall. Sure enough, upon further inspection, the building next to the one of concern had experienced a partial collapse.

Victories! Few and far between. One of note was getting the building at the corner of Beach and Divisadero Streets back up on its piers. Oh, yes, someone ordered a strike on the Marina. No not a labor walk-out, but a Naval maneuver. One designed to put out the fire and establish a fire-free zone.

Tears and laughter, joy and grief. Many emotions ran together during the post earthquake period. Frustration, impatience, forgiveness and thanksgiving all compete for a place in the action. But, most of all, there was a resoluteness of thought that silently spoke of overcoming all difficulties in the end.

Gradually, as we got back to work, the sharpness of each event dulled. But, the dedication of those involved never flagged. The workers from the Conservation Corps, the volunteers, folks from PG&E, and most of all the men and women of the Department of Public Works, all hung in and worked to make things well.

It is now four months later. Joann Cooney organized a thank you party for the DPW employees at the Civic Auditorium. There was entertainment by the DPW Choir and a group of young people that had Patrick Duffy (Dallas-Bobby Ewing) as their MC. In addition, Mayor Agnos thanked everyone in the Department for a job well done. I think that all enjoyed themselves. But, there was not much talk of the earthquake. We all seem to be trying to get back to normal, almost as if we do not think about it it was not there. Maybe this is the best part of the whole thing. The blending of events and experiences and the slowly settling back into the role of every day life without the pain and sorrow of the tragedy.

Continue to Training and the Real Thing or
Return to 1989 Earthquake Exhibit.