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Anniversary shakes up memories

A man stood at a pay phone, assuring kinfolk in the Midwest that he was fine.

Yes, he'd survived the earthquake that broke a bridge, flattened a freeway, toppled houses and businesses, and made baseball's great annual spectacle, the World Series, completely insignificant.

As I waited to use the phone to file my column (did you have a wireless modem or even a cell phone in 1989?), my impatience turned to sympathy as he called relative after relative. Each conversation went something like this:

"Aunt (fill in the blank)? This is Jim out in San Francisco. I'm all right. Jim, your nephew in California. No, Betty's son. No, I don't live in Cleveland anymore. I've been out here in San Francisco since 1975. Your sister Betty's son ... . No, John's my brother. I'm Jim ... ."

Imagine being in the smack-dab middle of a natural disaster or other catastrophic event and none of your family knows you are there or even remembers you.

Include that scene among the many vignettes etched in my memory from the Loma Prieta earthquake, 20 years ago Saturday. The upcoming anniversary stirs recollections not only of the devastating quake itself, but also of human nature in the aftermath.

You probably know the basics: Oct. 17, 1989, at 5:04 p.m., the 6.9 magnitude quake struck about 20 minutes before the scheduled start of World Series Game 3 at Candlestick Park. At that moment, I had just settled into my seat in the press section in the upper deck, along with now-retired Bee compadre Larry Minner and scores of other journalists.

It began with a strange staccato sound — probably the lightweight concrete steps beginning to crack — that gave way to an ominous rumble as the stadium began to move beneath us. Built in several independent sections to absorb the shock of just such an earthquake, Candlestick Park suddenly began moving like a Slinky. I looked up in time to see the football press box, at the rim above the third-base side, pitch forward and then straighten up again.

As the shaking became more violent, players ran out of the dugouts and onto the field to see what was happening. Fans screamed and bolted for the exits.

Then, after 15 of the longest seconds of our lives, the shaking and rumbling stopped. The big electronic scoreboard in left-center field went dead, except for a few random dots as the stadium's auxiliary power source kicked in.

Any thoughts the game would be played that night vanished within minutes. We watched on Larry's battery-operated miniature TV as helicopters, already in the air for the usual rush-hour traffic updates, came upon the collapsed section of the Bay Bridge and then the pancaked Cypress section of Interstate 880 in Oakland. A thin plume of smoke rose from San Francisco's Marina District, visible over the rim of the stadium.

We went to work, Larry writing about the event from the big-picture perspective while I went down to the field to talk with players and fans. With only emergency lighting at the stadium — our primitive Radio Shack laptops didn't have the lighted screens of today's machines — we set up on the back of a TV truck. We typed furiously, hoping to finish before our batteries died.

Then we headed out to find pay phones to file our stories.

We spent the night in a South San Francisco motel that had just enough emergency power to operate the electronic door locks to our rooms.

The next morning, we took U.S. Highway 101 toward downtown San Francisco for the commissioner's update at the St. Francis Hotel. Larry pointed out the leaning flagpole atop the Ferry Building near Fisherman's Wharf.

A quartet of military helicopters flew low over the city, and we wondered if martial law had been declared, since disasters and power outages are known to bring out looters in droves.

More ominous, however, was the freeway itself. Had we somehow gotten on a damaged, closed section of the road? All I know is that our company-owned Plymouth Horizon was the only vehicle on it — nothing else moving in either direction. So we exited and took surface streets. We parked in a garage near Union Square and headed for the meeting at the St. Francis, where baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent announced the delay of the series for at least a week while the people in the Bay Area dealt with the disaster and crews could repair Candlestick Park.

The strangeness of the day was affirmed when Rich Levin, Vincent's assistant, fell off the platform during the news conference and took a backdrop curtain with him. He was embarrassed, but not injured.

Otherwise, the city was eerily quiet. Homeless people who normally slept in alleys and doorways got to spend the night in the lobby of one of San Francisco's grandest hotels, which offered free coffee and pastries to anyone who came in.

Along Union Square, the quake had popped windows out of their frames on the upper floors of Macy's, the shattered glass swept into neat little cone-shaped piles on the sidewalk.

And when we went into a shop near Lefty O'Doul's bar to get a sandwich, the proprietor refused to serve us until he finished changing the prices. A ham sandwich that sold for $5 five minutes before now went for $12.

Inflation? Hardly. Price gouging and capitalizing on a disaster? Certainly.

Ten days after the earthquake, with crews still digging through the rubble around the bay, the World Series resumed at patched-up Candlestick Park.

When the A's completed the sweep, they appropriately tempered their celebration out of respect for the 63 people killed in the quake, for those whose homes and businesses were destroyed, and for people like nephew Jim, who just needed someone to care he'd survived.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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