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16 October 2009

What I remember about October 17

I was halfway through my third semester at Cal and on my way home from my geomorphology lab on Tuesday afternoon. I was trying to talk myself into spending more of the evening on my lab write-up for geomorphology than on the ball game. I was waiting for the campus shuttle bus by the Hearst Building at about 5 in the afternoon when it started, but I wouldn't feel it for several moments later, since I was standing 100 km NNW of the epicenter. The first wave hit just as the bus was pulling up to the stop, and the first thought through my head was, "damn, that guy hit the curb pretty hard!" When the Love waves hit and I heard the bells in the Campanile ringing randomly I finally realized what was happening -- someone on the bus asked how big I thought it was and I said that depended upon how far away it was, and I hoped it was right underneath us...

When we got downtown every burglar alarm in every building along Shattuck seemed to be ringing, and though there was still little obvious damage it seemed a bit more serious. I thought about walking back up to the Earth Sciences Building (they wouldn't rename it McCone Hall until a few years later) to check out the seismographs, but I realized: 1- I would probably just be in the way; and 2- I was a little concerned about whether there was damage at home. The BART was shut down already, confirming that things were getting uglier than my first instincts allowed for, so I called one of my housemates from a payphone (was it only 20 years ago that no one was permanently connected to a wireless network?) and hitched a ride from a friend to El Cerrito. By the time we got to Solano we could see the fires across the bay, and learned on the radio that the Bay Bridge had collapsed. We later learned that it was one section of the upper roadway that had collapsed onto the lower roadway, but a driver was killed when he drove into the gap (a video that would be shown on the news incessantly for the next week).

As bad as it was for many in the area, we had lights and utilities at home (though we were afraid to turn the gas on). I went to Picante's to pick up some burritos for dinner, only to find that they were shutting down and giving away the prepped food they had.

As I was leaving my brother John pulled up (he had been living with us for a couple of months at the time). At the time he was working as a dispatcher for a courier service near Oakland Airport. He had been standing in the parking at work when the quake hit. On his way home, driving north on highway 880, the traffic had just stopped. He managed to back down the on ramp at 6th Avenue, and while he was working his way north on Cypress Street he came upon one of the sections of the collapsed roadway, black smoke billowing from beneath. I've never seen him so ashen (though he later moved back down to LA in time for the Northridge earthquake).

We spent the rest of the evening watching the news with the other residents of our fourplex. One of our upstairs neighbors was beside herself most of the night, as her husband worked in the city and had not called (the phone lines were jammed all evening) and no way home; he finally called just after nine that night.

After a few hours I managed to get hold of my sister in Tucson to let her know we were OK, as my parents were on vacation on the east coast and I knew that my dad would have been watching the pre-game show -- and I knew that, from the perspective of everywhere else in the country, the entire bay area was now nothing but a pile of smoking rubble. I was way more at ease when I knew that my sis would be able to tell the folks we were all right.

When looking at the video of the collapsed and burning 880 freeway, I remember going through the calculations in my head (number of lanes, length of the collapsed sections, number of cars per mile during rush hour, one person per car average) and coming up with at least 500 casualties. That was confirmed in the special section of the Chronicle that came out the next morning, but I guess they went through the same math that I had because we were proven wrong over the next few weeks when the death toll there never exceeded 40 or so. Still, this was out of 65 deaths in the whole bay area.

I still mention in all of my classes that while the three biggest urban California earthquakes of the past half century (Sylmar in '71, Loma Prieta, and Northridge in '94) all killed about 60-65 people, 2/3 of the deaths in each quake occurred in a single structure (Veteran's hospital in Sylmar, the Cypress structure, and an apartment building in Northridge).

I was glad that I had not gone back to the Earth Science Building, because it was a staging area for several local news teams looking for seismologists to interview. I figured that I would have managed to say something pretty stupid on TV if given the chance. A year later I had a job in the seismographic station, changing paper on the drums, developing the photo paper records, and running the digital data through a compression program. Talking to the professionals I heard a few of the stories from that night...

The Berkeley team was having problems because all of their local instruments had gone off scale during the shaking. The digital instruments were further afield, working well and were connected to the lab by modem. The computer stored this remote data on removable cartridges that could hold up to 8 hours of seismic information. The computer had slots for four cartridges and changed to a fresh cartridge every 8 hours. Unfortunately the Loma Prieta quake popped at 5:04 local time (0004 UTC) and so was recorded to a cartridge that had only come in to use four minuted previous. No access to the digital information until the computer kicked that cartridge out at 1 am. For eight hours the only record they had access to was a single analog recording from a drum in the building's basement that was hooked up to an instrument that only magnified its signal by a factor of 100x. Of course this was a laser drum that recorded on photo paper that had to be developed and dried before it could be read...

1 comment:

Dominion said...

wow, thanks for the story

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