Common Wisdom: 5:04

It reminded me of nothing so much as the aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. When the earth rested, the question on everyone’s lips was, “Where were you when it happened?”

To live in the San Francisco bay area is to experience a kind of perfection. It offers a dazzling combination of sea and hills, as well as the cultural amenities associated with urban life. To this east coast defector, our climate is utopian: never sweltering, never frigid. If we have a three-day run of less than perfect weather we fuss, temporarily forgetting the rigors of our past. Liberated, we read details of yet another harsh winter or simmering summer in those places from which we came. We are just plain ecstatic to be here. We suffer patiently exclamations by visiting kin: “But you live in earthquake territory!” With practice, we accept periodic tremors that remind us of danger below, believing with fervor that if the Big One hits, it hits; meanwhile, we’ve spent our days in or near everyone’s favorite city.

I reaffirm that, even after 5:04 P.M., Tuesday, October 17, 1989, when terra was far from firma. Having endured hurricanes as a child, which set winds howling and trees crashing to the ground, I concede there is simply no analogue to the visceral reaction one feels during a 7.1 on the Richter scale.

So where was I when it struck? Where any certified shopaholic would have been: in a department store. About to enter a dressing room when the shake began, I eyeballed a clerk, intending to ask if there were an underground garage. If one is standing on the first floor over a garage, the rumble of trucks delivering merchandise can trigger a slight rush of adrenalin. One then feels sheepish, realizing error.

This time, the inquiry never made it to my lips. The vibration was so tremendous that the clerk and I gasped in unison “EARTHQUAKE!” We bolted for the front door through a path of extinguishing electric lights and cosmetic displays in avalanche to the carpet. Everyone ran. The impulse to flee danger was never so vividly illustrated. I knew instantly this was no simple 3.0 or even a 4. Not only did walls shudder violently, the floor undulated beneath my feet as if it were a bucking bronco. I burst onto the outside plaza with customers and clerks from every shop in the square, accompanied by the sound of shattering glass. As we trembled together, more seconds of terror remained. We swayed collectively in the grip of agitated earth expressing final convulsion.

Stunned by the gravity of what had occurred, I hurried to my car radio to pick up information. What I heard was dead air. The most powerful signal in our area was knocked into silence, its antenna obviously down. I frantically turned the dial until I heard a reporter confirming what I expected: a seismological jolt of whopping magnitude.

Forewarned that electrical outages were wide-spread, my immediate reaction was to go home. A limp, untried blouse still draped over my arm, I returned to the shop, where a phalanx of security personnel stood at the door among glass shards, receiving merchandise. With one glaring exception, customers dutifully lined up to give back desired items. Strangers only minutes before, shared trauma conferred instant intimacy. In a kind of frenzied catharsis we babbled our particular stories. I heard and asked the first of “where were you when it happened?” Rejoicing in survival, we struggled to regain normal composure.

No better illustration of success was exhibited than by the woman ahead of me, clinging to a red pleated skirt, begging the crippled store to transact business. “Please let me have it,” she begged, “I need it for a luncheon tomorrow!” Her anxiety about apparel, after a brush with mortality, was at once ludicrous and reassuring. “I have the cash! You don’t need the register! I’ll give you more than its value!” Personnel were adamant, however; defeated, she handed it back. Simultaneously, I saw a young blonde woman with several articles of unpurchased clothing jump into her car and hightail it out of the parking lot. There it was.

A microcosm of our dichotomized nature. The tearful woman, honorably returning the treasured red skirt, the blonde using disaster as opportunity to steal.

Driving home, I passed through intersections designed for eight lanes of cars. Absent traffic lights, I threaded my way, gingerly accelerating, braking, and praying for generosity. It came. Joined in communal shock, people responded as one would hope. It was Alphonse and Gaston all the way. Your turn, my turn.

I walked into a weird display of kitchen cabinet doors ajar, blown open by terrible force, books cascaded from shelves, plants toppled from stands, lamps overturned, and pictures askew on every wall. (Weeks later I would innocently open a seldom used cabinet only to have its contents tumble down on my head like the infamous closet of Fibber McGee.)

We were losing light. I rounded up flashlights and candles, the only illumination we had by the time my husband returned. The transistor fed news I could hardly absorb. Amazingly, my daughter in Washington, D.C. got through on the phone. She had been in a restaurant, TV beaming the World Series, when she recognized suddenly the faces of San Francisco TV anchors. Initially alarmed, she was familiar with the region and determined we were not in pockets of catastrophe such as the Marina, or Watsonville/Santa Cruz.

But it was from her, 3,000 miles away, that I heard vivid descriptions my dead television could not deliver, scenes of the collapse along I-880 and the Cypress Street viaduct. Not to mention the nightmare buckling of part of the Oakland Bay Bridge. I realized, with terror anew, that a cherished friend should have been en route at quake time across its fractured frame. Maybe he hadn’t gone? I called. No answer. I called later. No answer. A heavy, pervasive paralysis took hold, an appalling mixture of impotency and dread. It was relentless until the next day, when I heard his voice. He had delayed departure; very possibly it saved his life. My own solace was diminished as I realized that deliverance for others was still in abeyance. By then, all of us were aware of the chilling devastation at the Cypress structure. The horror of tumbled concrete compressing human flesh riveted our attention for days. The bay area, the nation, the world, hung suspended by the drama played out on that crumbled ramp. For everyone, two searing questions were posed: conscious, helplessly sealed by concrete, could I cope? Powerless, would spiritual strength see me through? And the correlative uncertainty: standing safely outside the Cypress, would I inch my way into its damaged core to search for victims? Hardhats and physicians, totally aware that an aftershock could slam shut their fragile passage, exchanged their own safety to assist potential survivors. Among the trapped, bravery was required. Among the free, bravery was a choice.

I have no appetite for daredevil exhibitionism. I am unmoved by those tip-toeing backwards on a wire across Niagara Falls or ascending skyscrapers without benefit of elevators. If anything, I am dismayed to think that someone in good health so carelessly regards life as to risk it to become an almanac entry. The reckless, teasing death, always remind me about the terminally ill, fighting for life. In October, I wasn’t watching show-offs. I saw men whose names and deeds will not be recorded in almanacs, but whose altruism humbled observers. I do not know what defines “hero,” but I know heroes when I see them. I saw them.

The 7.1 is history now, but emotional aftershocks remain, sobering questions which probe the soul. Could I have done it? Would I have been numbered among the brave? Had I been Buck Henry, wounded and isolated, would I have been courageous? Could I have managed a jaunty wave to the crowd as the concrete straitjacket was finally lifted from my body? Available to help victims, would I have crawled into a concrete house of cards knowing a tremor could cause my own death? Would my faith strengthen me during the ordeal as a lonely survivor or enable me to join a crew tunneling into ruins looking for the living? In disaster, do men of belief—would I—behave more selflessly than those without?

If calamity only means I am not able to buy a red skirt, it tells me nothing about myself. In the wake of Tuesday, October 17, 1989, at 5:04, some people learned about the stuff of which they are made. Most of us will never know.


  • B. F. Smith

    B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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