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THE PARC 55 HOTEL IN SAN FRANCISCO’S Union Square was
thirty-two stories tall, and my room was near the top. I walked down
the stairway and outside. On Market Street, one of the first things I
noticed was the clock in front of Samuels Jewelers. Both faces of the pillar
clock were frozen at 5:04. A plaque touted it as “one of the finest street clocks
in America” and pointed out that it was “insured by Lloyd’s of London.” I
wondered if the policy still was in force.
 
A few steps away, a man wore a sandwich board sign that proclaimed:
“Fallen, fallen is Babylon.” He would not tell me his name or even speak.
 
It was the morning of October 18, 1989—the morning after the Loma
Prieta earthquake. It also was the morning after Game 3 of the World Series
between the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants was supposed
to have been played at Candlestick Park.
 
After the Athletics romped 5–1 in Game 2 on Sunday, October 15,
taking a 2–0 series lead, I noted in my column that they seemed on the verge
of ignoring manager Tony La Russa’s suggestion that they remain low key and
to avoid waking the sleeping Giants. Rickey Henderson stole bases after the
game was decided, Dave Parker’s home run trot was turtlelike and taunting,
and Jose Canseco—remember, this was before he started naming names and
when the A’s Mark McGwire was a rail compared to what he would become
in later years—was strutting everywhere he went.
 
At least reliever Dennis Eckersley, who had served up the infamous
home run pitch to the Dodgers’ Kirk Gibson in Game 1 of Los Angeles’s
fi ve-game victory the year before, was being cautious. He noted that he was
on a Chicago Cubs team that blew the 1984 National League Championship
Series after taking a 2–0 lead over the Padres. “I’ve trained myself not to get
too carried away,” he said after closing out Game 2. “I’ve played too long and
know that anything can happen.”
 
Anything could happen.
 
Even an earthquake.
 
Two days later, after the routine interviews on the field before Game 3,
we retreated to the press boxes. Th e regular baseball press box—especially
at Candlestick at the time—was far too small to accommodate all of the
credentialed writers, and those spots went mostly to the beat writers of
specific major league teams. Although I was a Professional Baseball Writers
of America member and went to many Seattle Mariners games and also made
a couple trips a year to do columns on both the Giants and the Athletics, I
joined others in the temporary auxiliary press box constructed in the fi rst
rows of the upper deck. It wasn’t a bad vantage point, and I was looking
forward to watching the games from there.
 
Some background notes to put the following in context. This was long
before cell phones were part of everyday life. We would be rushing to beat
the newspaper deadline, so like many writers, I had arranged through the
telephone company to have my own line and phone installed at my seat. My
computer was typical for the time: it was a tiny Radio Shack TRS-80, the
infamous “Trash 80” that operated on either an AC adapter or (and this
would become important) AA batteries. It had a tiny four-line screen and
transmitted to the newspaper via a phone call. If the telephone cord was
modular and could be removed from the phone, we could transmit easily
and quickly through the phone line. If it was a pay phone that didn’t have
modular connections, we had to jam each end of the handset into coupler
cups. That worked roughly 41 percent of the time and often led to chunks
of copy disappearing. I had a portable radio that could get television sound,
too.
 
When the stadium shook, the reporter next to me, Shannon Fears—a
Bay area native—knew what it was. He jumped up and was ready to move. I
just sat there. Eventually, I would experience earthquakes in Portland and San
Jose, and as strange as it sounds, the one I experienced while in a press box
hanging from the rafters of the San Jose arena seemed far more immediately
frightening. But the hockey game went on that night. Th e baseball game
didn’t start.
 
Over the next few hours, as did many of my brethren, I talked with
fans in the stands and on the walk back to the media bus. I wrote with that
tiny Radio Shack on my lap as the bus crawled back to downtown San
Francisco.
 
Here’s the column that appeared the next morning in the Oregonian. I
have resisted the urge to touch it up (I have been teased that my modifiers
often aren’t just dangling, they are on opposite coasts from the words they
modify), and it is word-for-word what landed on the porches the next
morning. Even twenty years later, I’m amazed that it actually made it into
print. I must have had fresh batteries in that Trash 80.
 
SAN FRANCISCO—I was sitting in the upper deck of Candlestick Park on
Tuesday afternoon, directly behind home plate and about 30 rows from the top
of the stadium.
 
By my watch, at 5:05 p.m., one-half hour before the scheduled start of World
Series Game 3, the deck swayed.
 
For an instant, I thought that one of the airplanes fl ying over the stadium
might have caused a sonic boom.
 
No, I quickly concluded, that couldn’t be it.
 
An earthquake.
 
It seemed to last about five seconds.
 
Then the stands were still, the hearts started fibrillating and the questions
began.
 
Quite a few fans actually cheered when the movement stopped.
 
There was little, if any, panic.
 
The public-address announcer quickly said: “In case of an emergency” fans
in the lower deck should go onto the fi eld and those in the upper deck should go
to an exit.
 
That was the last we would hear from him for 61 minutes.
 
Right after that, the power went out.
 
Few people left immediately.
 
When the quake hit, I would find out later, three Oregonians—Bob McLeod
and Janet Heppner of Portland and Mark Schneider of Eugene—were leaving
the IBM hospitality tent on the Candlestick grounds. They all work for IBM and
had won the trip and Game 3 tickets in an incentive program.
 
“My first thought,” Schneider said, “was, ‘Hey, I haven’t even had a beer.’”
 
Said McLeod: “We thought we had too much beer. I was dizzy.”
 
If that sounds flippant, you must understand: That’s the way virtually all of
us were taking it. Shaken into gallows humor. And at that time we had only hints
of the magnitude of the toll. Nor had we seen it.
 
Michael Patrick, 38, of San Francisco, was in one of the balcony sections,
sitting under the cement roof. “I’m used to earthquakes,” he said later, “but the
overhang started to bounce up and down. You could hear it. I got out in the aisle.
My first thought was that the upper deck was about to collapse.”

My telephone worked for one call to the office. Then it went dead and worked
only intermittently over the next half hour.
 
Many of the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics walked out of their
dugouts and stood on the field, looking up at the stands. Those of us with batterypowered
radios and Watchman televisions listened to the increasingly frightening,
mostly unconfirmed, details reported on the fly.
 
Cars had bounced on the ground in the parking lot. The power was off all
over, including in the Bay Area Rapid Transit tunnel under the bay. The epicenter
was to the south. There was a major fire in Oakland.
 
At 5:27, a police car, with its lights flashing, rolled around the warning track,
to the home-plate area.
 
At 5:28, I heard a television report that a 50-foot section of the Bay Bridge
had collapsed and that there may be cars trapped underneath. A section of the
Nimitz Freeway, the major thoroughfare on the east side of the bay, had collapsed.
 
On the Richter Scale, the quake was 6.5. Or 6.9. Or 7.0.
 
Andy Lev of Palo Alto was outside the stadium, without a ticket, but $120 in
his pocket to buy one from a scalper. A woman came running out of the stadium,
he said, and sold him her stub for $10. Lev went into Candlestick. “She was really
freaked out,” Lev said. “Now I’ll get to use this as a rain check.”
 
Incredibly, at 5:39, with about half the 60,000 ticket holders (including Lev)
still in their seats, a chant went up. “Let’s play ball!”
 
Fans still were walking into the upper deck, carrying beer and hot dogs. Out
on the concourse, the concession stands still were open.
 
On the field, Oakland third-base coach Rene Lachemann said: “When the
quake happened, I saw guys running out of the dugout and I didn’t know what
had happened. I thought there might be skydivers landing or something. Now I
don’t know how we’re going to get back to Oakland.”
 
At 5:41, there was a mild aftershock. The upper deck had moved slightly
again. At 5:43, the players who had remained on the field gathered up their families
and walked toward the clubhouse door in the right-field corner.
 
Ushers remained on duty, directing traffic. But it wasn’t a rush of panic, only
general milling.
 
At 6:05, a man with a bullhorn stood on the field and told the remaining fans
to evacuate the stadium “in an orderly fashion.” One minute later, the power was
restored—at last long enough for the public-address announcer to tell everyone to
leave. U.S. Highway 101 was within sight from the concourse and traffic seemed to
be moving. However, few vehicles were getting out of the parking lot.
 
The upper concourse concessions stands still were open. And the souvenir
stands were doing brisk business. More than once I head a variation of: “These
things are going to be collectors’ items.”
 
We walked to the media bus. Again, there wasn’t much panic. Just concern.
 
The Giants’ radio network still was on the air, and reporter Bruce McGowan was
interviewing a few Giants’ players.
 
“It’s just too weird, man,” said San Francisco catcher Terry Kennedy.
“They’re talking about how important this series is. We’re finding out now where
the priorities are.”
 
Amen.
 
I’m writing this on a bus riding through darkened streets, hoping to be able to
transmit when we make it to the first downtown stop, the Meridien Hotel.
 
One man on the bus just got ill.
 
“Be extremely careful,” the bus driver just said. “They are doing a lot of looting
down here. So be careful.”
 
Update: Sixty-three minutes after the bus started moving, we pulled up at the
Meridien. The lobby was dark, but the bar was open and cocktail waitresses were
serving drinks. Th e makeshift pressroom was open in a restaurant.
 
If you’re reading this, the phone worked.
 
If I had to do it over again, I’d delete the “Amen.” Over the next few days, I was
reminded how sickening it gets to hear “This sure puts sports in perspective.”
Fact was—and still is—that most of us do have sports in perspective, and it
doesn’t take disasters to force us into reassessment.
 
After filing the column and probably having a drink at the Pierre
Restaurant, the temporary media work room in the Meridien, I walked a
mile through the darkened downtown—three blocks down Battery Street
and then the rest of the way on Market to the Parc 55. The power was
out, but a freight elevator and hallway lights were operating on a backup
generator. I waited my turn to ride upstairs. On my floor, the darkness
was eerie. Most of my fellow guests had their doors propped open to let
the limited light from the hallway into the room. The two women in the
room next to me were from Missouri, as I recall, and we talked briefly, yet
I never saw them. I managed to get ready for bed in the dark and went to
sleep.
 
The next morning, I did a radio interview by phone with Scott Lynn
of Portland’s top station, KEX. I heard announcements in multiple
languages through the hotel speaker system about where food and other
necessities were available. I left and after noticing the Samuels Jewelers
clock and the man with the “Babylon” sign, wandered through downtown
feeling a bit guilty because authorities were asking residents to stay put if
at all possible.
 
Traffic moved fitfully without signals. Stores and restaurants were closed.
All of them, that is, except for the South of Market grocery on the corner of
Fourth and Howard, across the street from the George Moscone Convention
Center. Inside the small store, a rack of snack food had collapsed, so packages
of Lay’s Potato Chips littered one aisle. Beer and soft drinks still were cold
in the dark refrigerated cases, but bottled water, orange juice, and packaged
food were the best sellers.
 
A line of about ten people went up one aisle as manager Abe Bateh
added up prices with a pen on brown bags. He rounded off prices to avoid
using coins, but the prices were near their original levels. He was not gouging
his customers.
 
“Nobody told me to open,” Bateh told me. “I came here and when
everybody was here and hungry, I decided to open.”
 
Across the street at the Convention Center, a two-tiered social drama
was playing out as engineers from around the country who were attending
a water-pollution conference mixed with the refugees from the nearby
Tenderloin district who had been forced out of their apartments and the
hotels catering to transients by the quake’s eff ects. Inside the door, a sign
directed the homeless and stranded downstairs to the makeshift American
Red Cross disaster center in the exhibit hall. Rodney Bacon, a Red Cross
volunteer, told engineers that their conference was canceled. When the
bedraggled walked in the door, Bacon pointed downstairs.
 
Franklin Schutz, an engineer at West Virginia University in Morgantown,
wasn’t sure when he would be getting home. But he said he had spent the
night in his low-rise Cow Hollow hotel in the decimated Marina District. “It
was sort of like a block party,” he said. “The buses were running. One Mexican
restaurant was serving on paper plates for anyone who walked up. When I
tried to use a coin phone, somebody walked up and held a light for me so I
could see. A lot of people had portable radios.”
 
When Schutz got through to his wife in West Virginia, he told her how
he had been on a bus outside the convention center when the quake hit. “We
were wondering who was fooling around with the bus,” he said.
 
In the exposition hall downstairs, men and women slept on cots,
sat silently, or milled around and quietly talked. Steve Hull, a Red Cross
volunteer supervisor, told me that “between 350 and 500 people” spent the
night in the center. He said the Red Cross served breakfast to more than 800
from the Tenderloin District and that they had been told they could
stay as long as “four or five days.”
 
Barbara Egar, who was staying in a nearby apartment until her gas and
electricity went out, sat in a chair against one wall, her arms wrapped around
her knees. “It was weird here last night,” she told me. “Weird people. They
were threatening, too, at times. It was abusive language, the grossest stuff
you’ve ever heard.” I asked her if she slept. “No,” she said. “No. Too many
weird people.” Even before the quake, she said, she was planning on returning
to her former home in Arkansas. “I don’t have any money to go home on now,
though, to tell you the truth.”
 
Twenita Jones, thirty-two, was five months pregnant. When the quake
hit, she was at the Episcopal Center shelter, four blocks away from the
convention center. “We were getting ready to eat,” she said. “Th e floors and
everything were moving and when it stopped, they sent us out in the parking
lot. When the aftershocks came, they took us out of the building again. We
stayed there in the dark last night, then they brought us here at 6:30 this
morning.”
 
Jones said she had been at the Episcopal Center for only three days after
leaving her apartment building because she couldn’t pay the rent until her
next Aid to Families with Dependent Children check arrived. “Now I’m just
waiting to get something to eat,” she said.
 
At midmorning, the homeless still filtered into the exposition hall.
 
They signed a sheet at the door. Some carried packs and clothes. Others had
nothing. A slight, bent man with a gray-speckled beard spotted my open
notebook and the World Series media credential hanging around my neck.
He approached me with both hands in his pockets and a not-so-shy smile on
his face. “You should talk to me,” he said. “I was one of the best lightweight
fighters in the state of California. Everybody knows me around here.”
 
He said he was Oscar Smith, a sixty-six-year-old retired construction
worker who once had fists of brick and fought out of Newman Gym. “I
fought all the good fi ghters,” he said. “I fought for Johnny Monroe. I was a
stablemate of Earl Turner.” Surely I knew those names, he told me. Well, no,
I didn’t. But when Oscar couldn’t tell me his record, we were even. “I don’t
know,” he said, “but it was good.”
 
When I checked later, he wasn’t listed in the sports department’s oldest
Ring Record Book, the 1960 volume, but that didn’t mean he was pulling
my leg.
 
Oscar said he was a refugee from the Angelo Hotel on 6th Street. He
told me he had been staggering between the ropes in recent years, living on
social security and assistance checks totaling $667 a month. He said he had
lived in another hotel with a transient clientele for fourteen years, “until they
put me out on the street because of a mistake” fi ve days earlier.
 
“They said I hadn’t paid the rent, but I had,” he said. “That’s the God’s
truth. The landlord must have gone south with it. I think they just wanted to
get me out because they could rent the room for more money from somebody
else than I was paying.”
 
After being evicted, Oscar moved into room 331 of the Angelo. He told
me that on the day of the earthquake, he was working underneath a friend’s
car on Eddy Street, near the hotel. “Th e car was wheeling and rocking,” Oscar
said. “I thought somebody was rocking the car, jumping on the running
board. As soon as I got out from under the car and they told me what had
happened, I was frightened to death.”
 
He said the Angelo shut down completely. “Th ere was a housing authority
cop or somebody like that standing out front, keeping us out,” he said. Oscar
said he managed to sneak back into his room “before they came and knocked
in the door and told me to get the hell out of there. They said the building
was condemned. So I came here. They gave us sandwiches and coffee, and
they were real nice to us.”
 
A pregnant woman approached us. “This is my pal,” she said, putting her
arms around Oscar’s neck from behind. “It was pitch-dark and I was one of
the last ones out of the hotel. It was so dark and I told this nice gentleman I
needed some help. And do you know that he put his hand out to me and I
had to slap him silly?”
 
They both laughed and the woman, who declined to give her name,
walked away. Eventually, so did I.
 
That night, I attended Commissioner Fay Vincent’s news conference
in a meeting room at the Westin St. Francis. The only lighting was from
candles and the limited number of makeshift television lights. The rumors
had flown all day about such alternatives for the World Series as finishing
in Los Angeles and Anaheim, moving it back across the bay to Oakland for
all remaining games, or canceling the rest of the Series altogether. Vincent
did the sensible thing, saying Major League Baseball would put the Series
on hold until at least the next Tuesday, one week after the earthquake. That
seems an obvious decision in retrospect, but at the time there was a lot of
that knee-jerk “puts-things-in-perspective” rhetoric flying, and if Vincent had
announced the Series was canceled and blathered on about baseball knowing
its place, he would have received widespread praise.
 
I caught a flight home in the next couple of days and was in Portland
when the Giants visited the refugees at the Moscone Convention Center
after a Friday workout. None of the stories featured my buddy Oscar.
 
I returned the next week, after Vincent announced that the Series would
resume on Friday, October 27. The Athletics finished their four-game sweep
with consecutive victories at Candlestick.
 
The incident I most remember during the resumption of the Series came
in the bottom of the ninth inning of the A’s 13–7 win in Game 3. The Giants’
Candy Maldonado was at the plate, and we were merely counting down the
pitches until it was over. Suddenly, one bank of lights in right-centerfield
went dark. As the umpires and others began considering what to do, a single
light appeared in the section below the bank. It might have been an usher
with a flashlight. It could have been a single fan with a lighter. Th en there
were five lights. Then, faster than you could follow the progress, there were
hundreds around the park, far beyond the affected area, individual lights
from flashlights, butane lighters, matches. Amid laughter and bobbing points
of light, the game went on.
 
At that point, what were a few light bulbs?
 
The Series ended on a day when banners in downtown San Francisco
heralded “Quake Sales,” “Earth-Shaking Bargains,” and “Giant Reductions.”
Souvenir emporiums couldn’t restock tables with “I Survived the Quake” Tshirts
fast enough. I still have mine.
 
The dead were not forgotten. Neither were the sensations of loss and
helplessness and horror. It was appropriate to remember, yet time to move
on. At least in baseball.