Recollections of the Loma Prieta Quake of 1989


Recalling the Loma Prieta Quake of 1989, the following is an excerpt from a letter Penny and Brent Duncan wrote from near the epicenter shortly after the "big one".

In our neighborhood, first came the Earthquake on an unseasonably warm and sunny October afternoon, knocking out everyone’s power, not to mention our senses. Then began the jumbo aftershocks that continue to rock and roll, most often in the middle of the night. Next came a record windstorm, which blew out our neighbor’s windows. Soon the rain began to fall on our damaged roofs, leaking over our bed and causing even more landslides than before. We awaited the locusts.

It was after 5 pm. and the night was coming soon. Every time I’d try to go back into the house to sift through the breakage and clutter for flashlights and candles to prepare for darkness, an aftershock would chase me out.  The children were clingy and frightened and huddled on the front lawn with my neighbor from Colorado.  She had been outside, emptying her trash when the roof began to rain down on her.  She jumped out of her shoes, running into the house to get her 8-month-old baby.  We found her shoes under a pile of red roof tiles.

Our place is trashed, Brent’s out of a job, and the ground is still shaking, but we are feeling lucky and blessed. The epicenter of the “Great Quake of ’89” was right here in Aptos, just a few miles away in the Forest of Nicene Marks.

In the three weeks since the “Big One,” there have been thousands of aftershocks, 20 of them over a 4.0 magnitude, and at least two were over 5.0 on the Richter scale. Each one sends our kids into a frenzy and gets our adrenaline going as we wonder, “How long will this one last?” and “How bad will it get?” It has become a sort of game to guess the magnitude and see who is the closest.  We are almost always right, except the ones that jolt us out of sleep sometimes seem worse than they are.

The kids have had the toughest time. They developed a new portfolio of insecurities, including fear of the dark, fear of being alone, and fear of large trucks going by our house—the roar of loud trucks sound like approaching earthquakes. The past couple of days, they seem to finally be getting used to the earth's moving them off their feet. Last night, Brittany slept through a 4.5 quake that knocked a few things down. But she said she wants to move away, “someplace where we can fly to the beach” and asked, “why does Heavenly Father give us the world and then make it shake?” She seems to understand now that the earth is just trying to get comfortable. Zach's so young; he has a lot of difficulties comprehending all of this. He was two years old on Monday.

Fortunately, a couple of days before the quake hit, we had discussed where we should ride it out with the kids during an earthquake. Not under a door—doors tend to swing open and close on those who follow the “conventional wisdom” of earthquake preparedness—but in the entryway. That brief discussion proved prophetic. Luckily, I had just sent home my last day-care child at 5 o’clock, which was unusually early. Generally, at that time, the kids are in the middle of the living room floor watching Sesame Street while I get dinner ready.  We were early, and I had just sat them down at the table to eat when the quake began.  At first, I thought, “Oh, it’s an earthquake,” not unusual, no big deal.

Cracked roads in AptosThen came a vast and deafening wave that gave me only enough time to snatch up a kid in each arm as all three of us were thrown to the floor. Bookcases, a heavy armoire, lamps, pictures on the walls, television, VCR, stereo, computer and printer, the entire contents of the refrigerator and the pantry, and all the plates and glasses crashed to the floor in about 45 seconds of violent upheaval. The floor was being violently thrown back and forth, up and down, like someone shaking out a rug. Brittany was terrified and screaming, and all I could yell out was, “It’s okay” over and over again. Zach just stared while the door of the closet next to us burst open and rained out all over the floor next to us, but nothing touched us. The TV, stereo, and VCR were thrown out upside down on top of each other right where the children usually sit at that time of day.

There was broken glass everywhere. Everything from the medicine cabinet in the bathroom had fallen onto the sink, and because there were cologne bottles that had broken, it was overpoweringly sweet-smelling in there. The kitchen was the worst. Glasses and jars filled with flour and sugar from the cupboards had shattered all over the floor. The refrigerator had been jarred open, so there was milk and apple juice splashed all over too. All the plaster on the wall cracked, and large chunks of plaster were hanging from the ceiling. The windows are all cracked, but they all held. The walls are down to the wood. The foundation is cracked. The chimney is broken, so we can't use the fireplace. A chimney down the block fell on a car. There are two houses in our neighborhood that I know of that are condemned and leaning. We were without power and water for days. I didn’t get a shower for 5 of them.

Tents filled the yards in our neighborhoods because families feared homes would topple in aftershocksTents filled the front yards in our neighborhood. The families were afraid to enter their houses while the aftershocks still shook their homes. The streets are buckled and cracked. Across the river, cracks permeate the streets like spider webs, some of them three and a half feet deep. Our nightly walk now is down to the Aptos Creek to see how much broader and deeper the crevices from faults get each day. The cliffs and pier at our own Seacliff Beach are shuttered, and the road is closed to clean clear the landslides and fill the cracks.

A man who was in a small fishing boat between our cement boat and Capitola pier told my neighbor he saw the cliffs fall, and high clouds of dust rise all along the coast, but the thing that really frightened him was when he suddenly found himself in a 35 foot deep trough in the ocean wondering if he was going to be coming up the other side of it. The wave had traveled east to west, so we didn’t need to worry about a tidal wave.  Everyone on the west side of the fault is now 20 inches further south and 20 inches higher than they were before.  After doing some bizarre measurements, NASA announced today that the entire Monterey Peninsula had moved 3 inches north. 

A friend at church who lives on a hill near here was out in his yard and watched a six-foot underground wave approach. He hurdled it and watched it go under his house. Because of the damage that the wave did to his house, his family won’t be able to sell and move to Seattle as they’d planned.

It took two weeks for the massive bruise on my rear end to clear.  The day after the big one, I felt as though I’d been in a car accident. All the muscles in my body bruised, I had a terrific headache. That proved a common complaint; and no sleep for a week. The ground felt as though it were in constant motion for the following week, and it was, making me feel like I’d been at sea for months and still hadn’t developed my land legs.

We slept in our sweats on the living room floor with our bag packed near the front door. Brittany clutched Brent’s finger all night long. Every aftershock woke us.

Immediately after the quake, as we waited for news from neighbor’s car radios, Brittany began saying, “Daddy’s dead.” Since the phones were out, we didn’t know how he was until he walked in around midnight that night, while I was still cleaning the kitchen mess by candlelight. I was listening to the radio and getting increasingly worried about hearing about all the road closures due to landslides.

Brent says:

I was in my office, a corner office with a 180‚ view of the Santa Clara Valley from the 10th story of a high rise building. I was with my company’s Chairman of the Board. He had flown in from Chicago just a few hours before. When the quake started, I motioned him toward my window so he could witness the waves of earthmoving from a bird’s eye view. Earthquakes from 100 feet up can be impressive to watch.

Then it hit harder, smashing me into a window as the building jolted. Any other state in the Union, any other country in the world, and that building would have collapsed. As it was, the building, as with most of the buildings in the San Francisco Bay area, did the twist. I was impressed.

Not so impressed was the Chairman. He panicked and ran for the door, not listening when I told him to "stay away from the door, get under the desk." He learned the hard way why getting under a door in an earthquake is stupid. The door repeatedly slammed his arm, breaking it in multiple places.

I spent the next couple of hours administering first aid to the Chairman and others in the building, evacuating people, prying open locked elevators, and pulling frightened people from under their desks. There were a couple of fierce aftershocks while I helped people down the stairs. Some mistook my actions as altruistic. I just wanted to have an excuse to go into the building to try and find a phone that worked.

I’ve lived through a lot of California Shakes. I knew that people had died in this one. I just wanted to see if my family was OK. I found a phone that worked. No answer. No ring.

Landslides, torn asphalt, and shattered bridges blocked all roads through the Santa Cruz Mountains home. It took me three hours to go 1/2 mile toward the mountain pass, but I was determined to get home.

Northern California had no power. Eerie.

When a radio station finally got some emergency power, it became apparent how helpless people felt throughout the Bay Area. One by one, the tragedies were reported. The Marina District in flames, a freeway I drive daily collapsed, bridges collapsed, cars crushed. The worst news for me: no one could get any communications from Santa Cruz, with reports that tidal waves buried the coast. Our little bungalow is in the Rio del Mar flats, where a high tide can mean seaweed in our streets; so, it would be the first place underwater in a tidal wave.

That long drive home gave me ulcers. I headed south, searching for an open pass over the Santa Cruz Mountains. I ended up taking an 80-mile detour around the Mountains toward Monterey. When I finally got to Highway One, I picked up KSCO, a Santa Cruz station broadcasting from a bomb shelter using a generator for power. The first thing I heard was that all the beach communities were being evacuated because of what was thought to be imminent incoming tidal waves. I stepped on the gas, ignoring that the once smooth roadways had become like a motocross track.

A portion of Highway 1 collapsed through its support foundations,I stopped at every phone booth I saw. I was able to get rings, no answer. All the roads home were blocked. I almost drove off the edge of a broken bridge in the middle of Hiway 1, breaking just in time to peer over the edge. More carefully edging my way through surface streets, I had to break police barriers to advance. In Watsonville, buildings were in the streets. The dark figures of looters with baseball bats darted away from my headlights as I rounded street corners. In the time it took me to get home, I could have driven to Reno. But I made it. The first thing I heard was Brittany screaming, ‘It’s Daddy! He isn’t dead!’

Santa Cruz County was isolated from the world for a few days. No power, no roads in or out, no telephones, and no radio reception from outside the county. It was like being on an isolated island. I heard later that news stations outside Northern California were saying that no one could contact anyone in Santa Cruz to determine whether it was still around.

The evening of the earthquake, Sherrie’s store on the corner had a long line. The whole next day was more of the same. People waited for food, water, flashlights, and batteries mostly. Storeowners took orders at the door or allowed only 5-10 people in at a time because of the damage and the lack of lights. We drove around. The one open gas station was in Capitola. The line was several blocks long, like in the days of rationing. We were lucky and already had most of what we needed. We found some luxuries—tortillas and powdered milk—at a small market with a short line. The lines at the larger stores were hours long.

Earthquake damage at the Pacific Garden MallThe land is still here. But Santa Cruz will never be the same. Aptos Village, a couple of blocks away, is leveled. Downtown Santa Cruz is rubble. The Pacific Garden Mall character is ruined. We went to see the damage to the boardwalk. Some were closed up, but they ran the Giant Dipper this weekend. How it escaped damage is beyond me. It will be interesting to see what happens as far as re-building because of the political climate.  Watsonville’s downtown is also gone. There is a large relief center at the airport there, for the “displaced.” (Not to be confused with the bow-your-head-when-you-say-it… “homeless.”)

The weekend following the earthquake was supposed to be a weekend in Yosemite. The world better beware, the Duncans are planning a trip to Yosemite. We had two sitters lined up who owed me many hours of babysitting in trade. I even had a third back-up sitter. Considering that every time we plan a trip to Yosemite, something disastrous happens, it's become a private joke. This time we weren't going to let anything stop us. It had to be a BIG earthquake to do it.

Three weeks after the big one, we are still okay. The house continues to crumble, but it has been three days since we have felt an aftershock. Northern Californians seem to be feeling invincible—sort of a “we survived a 7.1, we can survive anything” type attitude. As a family, we are prepared better than ever. Brent even taught Penny CPR just in case.

Financially we’re ruined—for now at least. What little we had has been destroyed, and the quake killed my job. I had been working for a high tech company installing and operating terminals at mortgage and real estate companies around the Bay Area that agents used to computerize home loan origination. The one server that all the terminals connected to was in a basement in Burlingame. The earthquake toppled the server, destroying the drives and data. No backups, no redundant servers. No more business.

We’ll get over it. We have been extremely fortunate in the face of what could have been an even greater catastrophe.

NSM epicenter 89 TILE small