A Bridge Too Far?

The headline in the October 18, 1989 edition of the San Francisco
Chronicle went right to the point about the previous day’s events

Anniversaries are funny things.  I don’t think about this one much nowadays, but postings on social media and news outlets reminded me that we had reached the 30th anniversary of the Loma Prieta Earthquake.  Centered in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the south portion of the Bay Area, this 6.9 magnitude quake ended up killing 63 people, damaging or destroying more than 27,000 structures, and tallied $10 billion in recovery and rebuilding costs.

Of course, the earthquake’s effect proved more durable than normal on a larger scale due to the circumstances of that day. Game 3 of Major League Baseball’s World Series between the cross-bay rivals San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s was approximately 30 minutes from starting when the quake struck. Once the broadcast signal was restored, a national audience watched stunned as live shots of collapsed freeways, damaged buildings, and fires contrasted with the worried faces of both players and fans alike.

I have my own tale from that day, one that I have only shared with close friends and family until now.

Just before the quake hit, I was driving north on I-680 in the East Bay, heading toward Walnut Creek. Traffic would normally be ridiculous at this time, but on this day, my progress was for the most part at the speed limit.  As it turned out, the timing of the World Series turned out to be a blessing in disguise: many people had headed home or to their nearest watering hole early to catch the action. For me, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to catch the first pitch on TV, and even with the lighter traffic, the odds were not looking good in that respect.

The quake hit when I as nearing the city of Walnut Creek in Contra Costa County. As it struck, the car transformed into a children’s roller coaster, undulating gently up and down for about 10 seconds or so. I glanced around confused, looking to and fro for dips in the road that I knew shouldn’t be on that particular stretch of freeway.

Freeway signs became a bit of a blur as I neared Walnut Creek at the quake’s onset

At the same time, I noticed that the signal from KNBR (the San Francisco Giants’ flagship station) had reverted to static. Puzzled, I hit the preset buttons for the major news stations in the region (KCBS & KGO) and heard the same thing.  I then swapped to the FM side of the ledger, using the tuner dial to actually try to an active broadcast. I eventually landed on soft rock/pop station from that side of the bay broadcasting music (I can’t 100% trust my memory, but I was serenaded (laughingly) for a minute or so by the dulcet tones of Ambrosia’s “How Much I Feel.”)

Anxious to hear anything more, I felt relief as the song ended and the DJ came on the air He dutifully reported the song name and station ID, then declaring that they were checking on reports that there may have been an earthquake in the area.  And then, more music.

As I said “What?!” in my mind, I noticed my surroundings. Now passing through Pleasant Hill into Concord, I saw smatterings of blown transformers on power poles here and there.  I also noticed my car and I were now eerily alone on the freeway, with not a single other car in sight.

Itching for news, I turned the radio back to AM to the far end of the dial to KFBK 1530, Sacramento’s news station. It was here where I got my first sense of how serious things really were: the station had dispatched their in-the-air traffic reporter, Commander Bill Eveland, to fly to San Francisco.  This was supplemented by reports the crew was receiving about the I-880 Freeway and the Cypress Structure pancake, the rampaging Marina fire in San Francisco, and the Bay Bridge deck collapse.

Post-earthquake Bay Bridge, with an opened new span and the older,
damaged span in the background being torn down and recycled

My eyes grew large with the last report. I gauged where I was and slowed down precipitously as I realized I was heading full tilt toward the deck of the Benicia Bridge, what was then a single-span structure that crossed the Carquinez Strait. Confirming again that there were no cars following me, I pulled my car to a complete stop just before I reached the bridge deck.

I craned my neck forward over the steering wheel. There seemed to be nothing but solid concrete deck ahead of me, but I realized there was no way I could really verify whether the deck was structurally sound or, like the Bay Bridge, a section had collapsed into the Carquinez Strait some 140 feet below. The chorus to the Clash song “Should I Stay or Should I Go” echoed in my mind.

After a few seconds of thought, I decided to continue forward, traveling at speeds that would be normally experienced during a typical rush hour. My head craned as far over the dashboard as it would go as I tried to scan for some telltale sign of damage.  Halfway across, I stopped the car – in fact, I got out of the car – and decided to reassess. Again, not a single soul was either ahead or behind me and, and for a brief second, I relaxed, soaking in how actually gorgeous the weather (sunny and roughly 80 degrees) was at the time.

Just as quickly, the word “aftershock” rumbled into my brain. I realized then that standing in the middle of an empty bridge perched 140 feet over water was probably one of the worst places I could be in the event of a big aftershock. I continued onward at a slightly speedier pace, emboldened a bit that I had not met my demise on the first half of the bridge.

With a big sigh of relief, I finally scrambled over to the toll plaza on the other side.  I dutifully pulled out my toll as I pulled up to the booth, wanting to ask the toll-taker what they had heard. But alas, and perhaps smartly, there were no toll-takers in any of the booths to take my toll.  I looked quickly around, and sped onward, figuring that my toll evasion would be completely understandable.

The new span of the Bay Bridge at night

The rest of the journey is somewhat anti-climactic: I made it without incident to my parents’ home, and thankfully they were all okay, despite some furniture and other objects being flung around like rag dolls. I remember sitting glued to the television for hours as rescue efforts and other recovery activities unfolded before the public.

The now-postponed World Series game would be played ten days after the quake hit. Alas, the Giants were swept this series, but they finally made good on getting their first baseball championship since moving out West with a series of highly improbable World Series wins in 2010, 2012, and 2014.

After much arguing by local officials, cost overruns, and unexpected design problems, the replacement span for the portion of the Bay Bridge that collapsed during Loma Prieta opened up to traffic in September 2013, almost 24 years after the Loma Prieta Quake.

Recent small quakes have also reminded area residents that a large earthquake (7.0 magnitude or higher) is almost certainly overdue, either on the San Andreas or the Hayward (which some have dubbed the most dangerous fault in the country) Faults.

And as for me, I guess I can say I hold the distinction of crossing a completely empty toll bridge for free at the height of rush hour.  I don’t really recommend that anyone try to duplicate the circumstances, however.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s