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An Oral History of the Presidio of San Francisco
During the Loma Prieta Earthquake

by Eve Iversen
University of California at Davis

Many stories have been told of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake that shook northern California. The role of the Army in San Francisco has been neglected. I was assigned as a Reserve Army officer to the Presidio in the early 1980's. As I became interested in the history of the installation I realized that there was very little written about the Army's contribution to the 1906 Earthquake beyond the use of soldiers to prevent looting. There was some information on the amount of supplies that were provided and extensive reports on the damage to buildings. There were no accounts of individuals. There was no face and name to go with the pictures.

After the Loma Prieta Earthquake I decided to collect oral histories from as many people as possible. I wanted to insure that the courage and dedication of the military and civilian personnel of the Presidio of San Francisco was recorded. The stories that I will present are a sample of those I collected. Most remain to be transcribed. They represent some of the names and faces that go with the pictures from this earthquake. The pictures themselves are part of the story. Chuck Blancet, an Army civilian photographer chased the Presidio Fire Department to the Marina District and took the most dramatic photos included here.


The temperature had climbed ten degrees from the day before and the humidity had built to a level that many would remember as sultry. As the fans waited in their seats at Candlestick Park some complained that 83 F was hot, especially for October 17, 1989. The lack of wind at Candlestick Park was all the more remarkable since if any kind of breeze was blowing it would make itself felt in the stadium.

To the philosopher Aristotle these conditions were the precursor to a temblor. Geologists had long ago disproved any link between weather and seismic activity but the old concept had hardened into a cliché. That Tuesday the primary safety concern of Bay Area officials was for building air pollution levels and brush fires. Fire danger was described as "Medium" with "No open fires permitted." The next evening The California Academy of Sciences had the first of a two-part lecture scheduled on "Earthquakes–Faulty Facts and Shaky Myths." It was a presentation that would have to wait while Nature gave its own geology lesson.

The baseball season was ending with the World Series to be played between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics. The first two games had been held at the Oakland Coliseum with the home team winning. At approximately 5 PM the third game was to begin at Candlestick. The San Francisco Giants hoped the home field advantage would help to even the score. The advertising posters had shown two players tugging at the pennant with the Bay Bridge in the background. Many fans had gone home early to watch the game on TV. There was a sense of drama in the stadium as the final preparations were made for the opening ceremony.


SGT Diane Langdon had been in the Army for more than five years when the opportunity came to join her husband Staff Sergeant (SSGT) David Wayne Langdon, a fellow Military Police officer in the opening ceremonies. Members of the soldiers from the Presidio would carry the state flags onto the field as part of Game Three. In the afternoon two Army buses loaded the troops under the direction of Sergeant First Class Pellegato. SGT Diane Langdon tells the story:

"It was a really hot day, but it hadn't been hot in the morning, so some of us had taken sweaters. As we were going down the Great Highway SFC Pellegato said. 'Look at the water, it looks like the calm before the storm. Can you believe how calm it is?' We didn't think anything of it, we just said 'yeah.' It was very hot and the bus was hot and we were all antsy ... it was just so hot." SSGT David Langdon who had only been in California a year confirms: "As we drove down, everyone commented on how hot it was, how calm the winds were, how quiet the Bay was, the stillness of the water, the old proverb, 'The calm before the storm' type of thing. It was rather scenic, in my opinion, but the relatively calm water of the Bay and then the lack of wind for October was unusual from what I was told."

The buses arrived and unloaded behind the center field Gate. Some people selected the flags of their home state while others took what was available. With her husband up front, and SGT Diane Langdon in the next rank, the Presidio contingent was ready to march. Handlers waited in the corners to release nets of balloons as soon as the flag ceremony was over. Drill teams and cheer leading groups waited their turns for entry. In the TV press box Al Michaels of ABC-TV was presenting live coverage to millions of fans.

SGT Diane Langdon remembers: "There was a loud noise and we looked up to see a plane going overhead and then in a split second it started shaking&U#0150;it was like the plane was causing the shaking - but no, that's not the plane, it's an earthquake." SFC Pellegatto also thought it was vibrations from the San Francisco International. "The next thing I knew I felt it hit my feet, not knowing whether to go to the left or right, I actually looked down on the ground to see whether or not there was a crack between my feet that's how strong it felt."

SGT Diane Langdon continues: "Above us, to the left the light stanchions were swaying, not just shaking, they were swaying back and forth. The concrete on the upper deck moved apart and you could see the sky on the other side. No one fell but you could see the sections of concrete moving apart and then back together. There wasn't panic we stood there and I thought 'Oh my God, man, what a day! Some timing!' "

SSGT David Langdon remembers: "The spooky part of [the earthquake] was looking up in the stands, completely full. Imagine Candlestick Park completely coming apart and going back together. To see the slabs above the upper deck separate by feet and come back together, and watch the light stanchions sway left and right from the apex to the center, about fifteen feet either way, it was a sight to behold, if you've never seen it. Then to look out to the field and just see it roll as if it were an ocean, because it was moving like a wave, just like water; waves and waves and waves. Before panic could set in, it stopped, all within about ten to fifteen seconds. Fans reacted really great; they applauded at first thinking that this is San Francisco and it would be apropos to have an earthquake during the World Series. Until we found out the devastation it had done."

"[When the shaking stopped] the announcement said that people in the lower decks go to the middle of the field, people in the upper deck get out by the stairway."

The Presidio detachment returned to the parking lot. A van from ESPN was doing live coverage of the game. It was from this source that the soldiers learned that d section of the Bay Bridge had collapsed. There was a brief delay while the buses were guided out of the parking lot. Using a combination of streets the personnel made it back to the Presidio after dark. Upon their return the Presidio the soldiers returned to their units. SFC Pellegato helped dispatch Military Police to the Marina District to assist the San Francisco Police. The next day SGT Langdon was put on duty as desk sergeant. Her husband was sent to the Marina

In a crisis the citizens of San Francisco showed their best traits. SGT Langdon relates: "People were really nice, At the traffic lights nobody was hogging, people weren't panicking, people were actually doing four way stops, and yielding to each other." SFC Pellegatto, with fifteen years' experience in the MP's said "Traffic lights were out all over the city but there were civilians on the road that took it upon themselves to go out and help direct traffic. I was amazed at the fact that people really pulled together and took charge." SSGT David Langdon, with ten years' experience concurs: "Everyone was courteous, we didn't believe how courteous the drivers were, you need to experience it. Civilians were out directing traffic at their own liberty. There were a few negative things but everyone was real cooperative."

SSGT David Langdon was sent to the Marina District the next day. "I had assumed the position of Patrol Supervisor of the Day Shift here at the Presidio. I was in charge of a normal five man patrol that was extended to twelve hour shifts (rather than the normal eight hours), plus doing shuttle runs from the Presidio and Command Post out to the Command Post set up down at Divisadero in the Marina District. I don't know if you would call it fortunate or unfortunate, to see the destruction wrought by the fires and quake down in the Marina District. I had to escort a few of the military dignitaries so they could survey the situation to insure that the military was actually needed.

While I was down there on one occasion, dropping supplies off to our MPs, radios and food, I happened to get caught up the arrival of Vice-President Quayle and his entourage. I had absolutely no chance to get out of the area. I was immediately summoned by the Secret Service detail for the performance of security and holding back the press and any onlookers from the Vice-President, so he could have an unimpeded passage through the Marina District to view the destruction. That was an experience, just couldn't stay far enough away to where the Secret Service [was happy].

I couldn't even tell you how many trips I made with elderly that couldn't walk, some of them were in wheelchairs. We just placed them in the [patrol] cars and took them outside the perimeter of the damaged area. The shock of the people that had lost everything was terrible to witness.

And then what was really worse were the onlookers. The tourists that would come in and gape and stare at someone else's disadvantaged position for their own benefit. We couldn't do much better than keeping them as far back as we could and just try to help the civilian [resident] populace as much as possible. You couldn't do any more for them, all their possessions were gone, what they had was what was on their backs. Those that were fortunate could get back into their living areas for a short period of time.

After the third day I did not go down there as much as I should have, the pressure was just too much. It was ... it was enough. I had to try and maintain myself here and maintain a patrol and the security of Presidio."

Duty in the Marina was difficult. Residents wanted to return to salvage their property in spite of the risk of further collapse. One unidentified Military policewoman said: "These people [the residents] want their stuff. I want them to get their stuff, I wanna let 'em back in. If I let 'em back in and somebody sees me..."


The Presidio Fire Department (PFD) is not part of the San Francisco Fire Department. In 1989 it was still manned by Army civilian personnel. As a neighboring unit the PFD had a mutual response agreement with San Francisco in the event of a major emergency. The agreement had never been put into effect since the 1906 earthquake until that evening in October.

Firefighter Vincent Milano takes up the story: "We have two fire engines and one rescue squad. The chief has a car and the AC has a car so that he can respond, too. We have two more engines at Fort Cronkite [in the Marin Headlands]. The on-coming shift comes in at 7:30 in the morning. It takes us about a half hour to check out all the equipment and tools to make sure everything is working properly. Then after we check all that out, we come inside and clean the station. It's kind of an old building and it takes a little more work to do. After we get that done, at about 9:00, we usually go out and check some buildings, or do a water flow alarm. Most of the time we train, pumping of the engine, shooting some water out, putting up ladders on the roofs going up, pulling up chain saws, or what have you."

The day had been routine. At 5:04 PM things changed abruptly. "Everything just started shaking, rocking, whatever it was. We always thought our station was a rocking station-we play our music loud-but [this time we] shook. Actually, it was kind of fun at the time, [at least] I though it was, I was so used to it being here all my life and going through earthquakes. After it stopped, Captain Haggerty immediately told us to get the equipment out of the station, [in case] the building is unstable or doors are not able to open. We just wanted to get everything out so we would be able to use it."

"Captain Smith was trying to come down during the earthquake, he was pretty much thrown around the stairs left and right. Every time he would try to go down, he got thrown back up. The dispatcher was Darryl Barr, he immediately came back into the Communications Center and took over. He tried to make sense of everything that was going on here. There was confusion at the time. When the earthquake hit, right afterwards, our computer veg'd out. It was basically gone. The computer controls all water-flow alarms, some manual pull-box alarms, smoke detectors, especially at Letterman Army Institute of Research and Letterman Army Medical Center (LAMC). and Fort Baker, Berry and Cronkite [in the Marin Headlands]. Our telephone lines were on, the emergency line was working, our radios were working. Except we had a major problem of 'bleed-over' from the MP's and everybody else.

"At 5:59, we received a call from [a] San Francisco Fire Department Chief. The City wanted to request a mutual-aid for a structure fire at Beach and Divisadero. We have a direct line with them, in which we can contact any station, their communication station, any fire department San Francisco office, we can contact through our line. They can directly contact us. I answered the phone and the communications officer on the line reported a fire at Beach and Divisadero. He wanted to know if we could respond mutually on the call. I told him hold on a minute. Captain Smith was standing right next to me, I told him what we had, he took a second to think about it because, he can't arbitrarily just send us out on a mutual-aid call, he's got procedures to follow. [He has to] go to the Assistant Chief, the Assistant Chief has to go to the Chief, the Chief has got to call Colonel Swift (Presidio Commander) or General Harrison (6th Army Commander), whoever he can get a hold of to get permission to actually do it. Even though they have a mutual-aid agreement with us, for us to go to them, not for them to come to us, we don't have that agreement. Regulations won't allow that.

"So the Captain had to think for a minute, whether or not he should make that decision now. He made the decision to send Engine 2, which was the only apparatus in the Station at the time. Engine 1 was at LAMC, Rescue 1 was at the water, and 82 was out with Rescue 1. So he made the decision to send myself and Roy Evans, he's the driver/operator. Consider him a veteran, he's been with the California Department of Forestry, he's been through a great deal fire-wise, so it's good to have him because he tried to keep me down to earth. I mean, [I'm a] rookie, not knowing what's going on it's kind of hard to keep control.

"We have two portables [radios] for the City that we can talk to them on, so we grabbed one of those and one of our [Presidio] portable radios. We didn't know at the time that the city radio was down. So, we didn't try to contact them anyway. We just kept in contact with our station."

The logbook reads: "1821 (6:21 PM). Engine 2 is on the scene at Beach and Divisadero. Reports two three-story buildings on fire." Milano continues: "Between that time we left, and we got out the gate, our sirens running and the horn yelling [this] is kinda the fun part of the job. Then we smelled the smoke and it was like a different feeling. I don't know how to explain it. It was like 'this is for real.' I've had grass fires here in the Presidio and at Fort Baker and all, but I never expected to actually go to a fire. So, we were going down Marina Boulevard to Divisadero and there were people out along the streets were waving their hands and telling which streets to go down. We knew where we going, but seeing them going like that, well this has got to be the street to go down.

Early photograph of the Marina District Fire, Oct. 17, 1989"You could see the smoke from a long way off. People across the Bay could see the smoke. When we made the right hand turn on Divisadero, I can't remember what we said, but we basically both said, s–, because there it was, when we saw what we were getting into.

"It was about two blocks away, we were coming in, there were people on the site helping everybody. As we just pull up to it, we are about three houses away from it. Roy, I guess through his experience seeing death and all, was very cool, he was telling me what needed to be done. I was a space cadet, I heard him, but I wasn't sure that I was going to do exactly what he said. I wasn't sure until I stared doing stuff. It turned out to be all right, we both did what we were supposed to do. But I was still up there ... I couldn't bring myself down, it was a different feeling. You were able to do your job, but it was still feeling ... things were just going through your mind so fast...."

"We reported to the Station [Presidio] that we were on scene, reported what we had, and we both got out of the engine. Roy was sizing up the situation; San Francisco Police Officers came up to me and said there was a woman trapped next door, not directly next door to the building that was on fire because that one had collapsed.

"We grabbed axes, there's one on each side where the hoseman usually sits, and we went up there and I broke the door window for the cop to get access. He said he could get her out. I went down and hooked up back with Roy. We laid our two and half inch line, which is the biggest line we have, just to the right of the fire. Roy started pumping the water. By that time, we were the first engine on the scene. By the time we got our hose hooked up and started pumping water, the City had gotten there and they supplied us with lines into our Engine, and started pumping water, the City had gotten there and they supplied us with lines into our Engine. They hooked up to the hydrant which was working for 20 minutes after the earthquake. The aftershocks knocked them out. There was a relay hose line. The City was at the corner; they hit the hydrant and laid hose to us and connected to our inlet and fed us water. I was on hose for about 20 minutes with hydrant pressure. After that died down, we went off the tank water we had left in our [engine]. We were doing exposure, meaning we were trying to save the house to the right and was fire-free from catching. I don't know if it did any good because it just looked like we were shooting the water onto the side of it and it looked like it was just turning to steam. The fire just kept building and the heat was ...Well you didn't want your turn-out coat on or anything because you just boiled inside.

"It was real hot. Our faces were the only things that got exposed, and we got like a mild sunburn or heat burn. We were kind of red afterwards. You didn't notice it at the time, your adrenaline is just going. Mine was anyway, I don't know about anyone else. We pumped water until we ran out. At that time, City units were on the scene. but during the time I was holding the hose, not one City firefighter helped out. I had civilians in shorts, short-sleeved shirts, no shirts, they were behind me holding the hose.

"Roy and I had to pick up the hose and back up the Engine three times the heat was so bad. The first two times we pulled back 30 feet or so. I think the third time after we got all the hose loaded we could, we backed it clear out of there and took [the Engine] around the block. [We] didn't need to be in anymore and we didn't have any water.

We got on the scene at 1821 hours (6:21 PM), we pumped water for approximately 15-20 minutes off a hydrant, then Roy did his engineering techniques on the Engine to make the water in the Engine last for approximately another 5-10 minutes. We basically had water going on the building for a half hour. [When] we ran out of water, the fire just kept escalating. It caught the building where that woman was trapped on fire. The building that was initially on fire started collapsing. After we ran out of water, it did catch on fire, the radiation or heat was so intense. It just toasted it.

"The air was very dry and still. There was no wind, so everything was going straight up in the air. The heat basically dried out your lungs, but as long as your were going, you didn't notice any of this stuff until later. After the building that was burning [collapsed]. the smoke got real bad because [the fire] was basically smothering and burning itself out. But the building on the right side was starting to go, so until the [SFFD Fireboat] Phoenix got their tie line and everything in..."

"At that point the San Francisco Fire Department took over and the Presidio Fire Department returned to the Station. While Engine 2 of the Presidio Fire Department was fighting the Marina fire casualties from the Bay Bridge were brought to the helipad at Crissy Field.


SGT Kurt Mercier of the MPs was in the Main Gymnasium bench pressing weights when the shaking started. "It started out with little vibrations under the feet, you hear a little shaking going on, and it started getting harder and harder. You could bear a roaring sound, weights started to fall off the racks, the electricity went out, cutting all the lights and making the gym totally dark. I tried to walk. I was thrown down, just as though the floor was buckling. When it finally settled down someone made it to the door ...and let some light inside."

No one was allowed to return to the barracks to change into uniform for fear the building might collapse. At that point an MP patrol asked SGT Mercier if he could return to the MP Station to help start the generator. When he finished this the desk sergeant told him to get down to the helipad to help with incoming casualties.

"I jumped in the patrol car with SGT Tabor and SGT Shephard. We got down to the helipad and while we were there. all we could think about was how sad we were, we couldn't believe the Bay Bridge had collapsed. We pictured several hundred casualties coming in, knowing that [traffic] at that time of day was bad."

The traffic was light for a weekday rush hour commute. Authorities would later put it down to the large number of baseball fans who went home early to catch Game Three of the World Series. Not everyone was lucky.

Anamafi Moala Kalushia driving her brother, Lesisita Halangahu, to Oakland from the San Francisco International Airport. When the quake struck they were on the lower deck of the Oakland Bay Bridge. When the shaking stopped they were directed to the upper deck via Yerba Buena Island. A miscommunication ensued and several car were sent east toward a gap in the road. Amateur videographer Thomas Kelly of Oklahoma shot a tape that shows the tragedy that followed. Anamafi's car flew into the hole and crashed.

It hung suspended over the Bay until a Caltrans wrecker crew was able to pull it to safety. A Coast Guard rescue helicopter landed on the roadway, with little clearance between the bridge cables and the rotor blades. The helicopter then took off for Crissy Field and the only hospital in San Francisco equipped with a helipad, Letterman Army Medical Center.

"The Coast Guard chopper came down and one of the chopper personnel ran toward us. He said that the girl didn't look like she was in good shape, possibly she was dead. They also had a second casualty, a male, who was in pretty bad shape. We could see he had bleeding from the chest, compound fractures in both legs, he had his arms crossed over his chest and was in a semi- conscious state.

"I was trying to tell the guy just from experience [my own] experience that if he was going into shock, just try to prevent it, he was going to be okay, he was going to be all right.. I could see he'd look up at me and I ...kept repeating that to give him some type of hope. So we calmed him down, he gives a little nod like he understood, I was just holding on to him ...holding his hand with mine ...reassuring him."

About that time SGT Mercier heard SGT Taber yelling over the noise of the helicopter blades. Mercier turned around and saw Taber waving his flag which meant he needed help with Anamafi. The doctor was positioned next to her head and he was screaming 'Where are the medics?' SGT Taber and SGT Mercier grabbed each side of the gurney and the doctor held the woman's head. They pulled her out of the helicopter and set her three to four feet from Lesisita.

SGT Mercier returned to Lesisita and began to reassure him again. "I heard the doctor behind me saying, 'Somebody start CPR' I turned around, one medic was standing over, about two feet away just looking down at her [Lesisita] like he was pretty shocked ...maybe he hadn't seen this before. I released the hand of the guy and turned around and started doing chest compressions on her. It was pretty difficult at first since her ribs were through her chest cavity. and they started to cut my hands. The doctor saw that and he gave me a cervical collar (neck brace). I put it over her chest to keep [her broken ribs] from penetrating my skin."

SGT Mercier kept up chest compressions while the doctor applied the airbag to maintain respiration. Simultaneously the doctor began an IV drip. SGT Mercier yelled to SGT Shepard to bring the ambulance.

SGT Mercier relates "We were trying to load her into the ambulance.. I grabbed one side while doing chest compressions with one hand and grabbing the gurney [with] the other, the doctor had her head, while SGT Taber grabbed the other side and we put her in the ambulance. We sat in the ambulance, continued compression and continued with the air. Once en route ... the doctor had to stop doing CPR because he had a pulse. That lasted four or five beats, then it stopped again so he said continue. I continued CPR as we unloaded her and all the way into the Emergency Room at which time I was relieved by a doctor. I was still in sweats and I wasn't wearing my brassard that says you're on duty or anything. but I still knew I had the duty to go back out."

SGT Mercier returned to the helipad but Lesisita had already been transported to Letterman. Anamafi Moala Kalushia, aged 23, had been married September 17. She was declared dead on arrival at Letterman on October 17. She was buried ten days later, the only fatality of the collapse of a section of the Bay Bridge. Lesisita underwent several surgeries at Letterman and recovered there.

SGT Mercier assisted in setting up the traffic controls to restrict access to the Presidio to military and emergency personnel. The next day he was sent to the Marina District to assist the SFPD.

"There were a lot of people still walking around in tears and a few people hurt ... with cuts and bruises ... Just everyone dazed, just confused, not knowing what to do, where to go, firefighters and San Francisco Police Department all over.

It's hard to tell someone that they can't go back in their home. It may not be easy for them to see safety-wise but that was our main concern. We didn't have to tussle with anyone we just talked to them, and tried to explain. Here again these people were confused. angry. frustrated, and everything else combined so they were like a firecracker getting ready to go off. We just had to talk calmly to them and explain to them the reasons why they couldn't go back in. Here again trying to give them the reassurance that everything would be okay, you know its bad, but you're okay, you're physically okay, your doing all right, that was the main factor for them."

For the next two days SGT Mercier and other MPs helped the citizens of San Francisco. Only on the third day was he able to return to his barracks and get into uniform.


The command "Play Ball!" rang out at Candlestick Park on October 27. Presidio soldiers did not participate in the second set of opening ceremonies. They were busy helping to get San Francisco back on its feet.

President George Bush visited the Presidio on October 21. SSGT David Langdon remembers: "I spent numerous hours with Operations here setting up for his arrival [working] with the San Francisco Police and Secret Service. He landed, all things went well. My wife (SGT Diane Langdon) was part of the human barricade right at the aircraft, the reporters knocked her literally within three feet of the President. He (President Bush) met with Mayor Art Agnos. Of course, he had his entourage of Senators and press, and he flew out to survey the destruction of the Cypress structure [in Oakland] and [the city] of Watsonville. Things went very smoothly for us.

On the fifth day following the earthquake there was a recall back to our own areas of operation here at the Presidio. The San Francisco Police and California Highway Patrol appreciated our services. Mayor Agnos appreciated us for reacting as quickly as we did. Recognition ceremonies were held on post and Presidio soldiers and civilian heroes marched in the 1990 Armed Forces Day Parade. Among the valiant were Firefighter Vince Milano and Roy Evans with Engine 2.

The accounts of the men and women of Presidio of San Francisco are among the most thrilling and significant in that they show the close relationship between the city and the military. Due to the reduction of the Department of Defense budget the Presidio of San Francisco was transferred to the National Park Service on October 1, 1994. The entire installation is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Letterman Army Medical Center has been closed and is being converted to mixed use. Almost all other San Francisco Bay area installations have been closed with the exception of those belonging to the Coast Guard.

Considering the important role the military has played in the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes there is concern as to how the cities of the Bay Area will cope when the earth shakes the next time.

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