California

30 years ago, the world watched as Loma Prieta earthquake devastated the Bay Area

The time and date are forever linked, a lasting reminder of the day The City shook: 5:04 p.m. on Oct. 17, 1989.

Now as Northern California marks the 30th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake, a new series of temblors this week reminds us anew how the earth shook that October afternoon.

The deadly 6.9-magnitude quake – the strongest earthquake to hit the Bay Area since the San Francisco quake of 1906 – devastated the region. People down the Central Valley and coast as far away as San Diego, and through the Sacramento region all the way to Nevada, felt its power.

The world just happened to be watching.

It was a Tuesday, the third game of a once-in-a-lifetime World Series. In 1989, the Bay’s best were Baseball’s best, the Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants taking the field at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. The Battle of the Bay, it was called.

In a matter of minutes, the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge, the span connecting the two rivals, would become symbolic of something much more powerful.

It was the end of the work day, thousands of Bay residents hopping aboard MUNI and BART, climbing in their cars for the drive on the Cypress Freeway or the Bay Bridge. Some 62,000 others packed the ‘Stick and others grabbed a barstool to catch a glimpse of history.

For the millions tuned in to ABC’s coverage of the World Series, it was play-by-play broadcaster Al Michaels who broke the news: ”I’ll tell you what, we’re having an earth ....” Michaels was heard saying before the network lost its feed.

The earthquake registered 6.9 on the Richter scale – a slip in the San Andreas Fault miles to the south in the Santa Cruz mountains triggered a temblor that lasted 20 seconds.

But the devastation was already being felt across the Bay and beyond.

Fires from ruptured gas mains raged in San Francisco’s Marina neighborhood built atop loose fill dirt; downtown Santa Cruz suffered extensive damage; a section of the upper level of the Bay Bridge broke apart; and the double-deck Cypress Freeway in Oakland collapsed, killing 42 people.

The total death toll was 63, according to California state figures. About 3,700 people were injured. Direct damage was estimated at $6.8 billion, with total damage of $10 billion. Some communities were cut off when their roads were destroyed or blocked. The Bay Bridge was out of commission for a month.

Retired Bee senior photojournalist Randy Pench was a young staff photographer perched along the first baseline at Candlestick Park when the quake struck.

”I was getting my camera gear set up with the other photographers,” Pench recalled Tuesday. “Just minutes before the game started, something sounded like people stomping their feet in the metal bleachers. It was a weird, strange feeling. I looked up to the press box, and the windows in the press box were shaking.

”I started seeing players and coaches coming out of the dugouts. Everybody had this look of ‘What just happened?’”

“(The shaking) wasn’t violent, but it was subtly there,” Pench continued. “Then it stopped and people piled onto the field. Now, we’re going from the World Series to covering an earthquake.”

Pench headed for the hard-hit Marina neighborhood. He worked the next 36 hours.

“It wasn’t my first (earthquake) and it was not the most violent I had been in. But I was definitely confused. Everybody was confused. It took a little time to get engaged,” Pench said.

“I remembered approaching the Marina. When I got there, there was a lot of smoldering, burning, devastation, people wandering around aimlessly. I was overwhelmed by the grand scale of everything, but I did what I always do, take one step at a time. I’m doing my job but was overwhelmed by the amount of destruction.

“It was an awful time for San Francisco.”

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Darrell Smith covers courts and California news for The Sacramento Bee. He joined The Bee in 2006 and previously worked at newspapers in Palm Springs, Colorado Springs, Colo., and Marysville. A Sacramento Valley native, Smith was born and raised at Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville.
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