Twenty years ago today, the earth shook violently in San Francisco. The death toll was 62, 3757 people were injured and property damage exceeded eight billion dollars.

I lived in Sacramento at the time but just happened to be in San Francisco that day! Here is my journal entry written several days later:

Friday, October 20, 1989

We were in San Francisco on the fateful earthquake day of October 17th, 1989. We were in the City for appointments with a nutritionist that a friend had recommended.

We were done by 4 P.M., and decided to have an early dinner at the nearby Middle Eastern restaurant “La Mediterranee” on Noe St. before heading back to Sacramento.

Carl [a previous partner] & I were the only customers eating at that “in-between” hour, and had nearly finished the delicious meal when the earthquake struck! Our table started to shake vigorously which made it difficult to dip the “baba ganoush” into my mouth. The glasses behind the bar rattled and the floor swayed and buckled as the earth made curious roaring, rumbling sounds. The first shock was immediately followed by a heavier second one, whereupon Carl leaped from his chair, grabbed my knapsack and scurried to the front door. He tripped over himself in panic and knocked into a table on his way out, which crashed to the floor with a shower of glass.

I was surprisingly calm and walked out of the place as the earth continued to shake. Carl went into the street but ran back to grab my arm as I emerged, cautioning me about the possibility of flying glass from the front window. Carl was extremely upset and I wasn’t at all, for some reason. Mother Nature was doing her number and I couldn’t do anything about it – if I was supposed to die, well, then it was time to go…..I found myself fascinated by the whole thing.

Later, however, the gravity of the disaster sank in, and I apologized to Carl for criticizing his strong reactions to the quake.

We stood in front of the restaurant as the shaking stopped, and the entire city was shocked into silence for a moment. Then it erupted into screams and sirens and general pandemonium, which continued into the night.

Carl wanted to leave without paying for our dinner, which surprised me; he’s usually so honest. I still had another appetizer and half a beer to finish, so I went back into the restaurant to eat and pay the bill. The waitresses and cooks also went back inside, where they commented how this was the strongest quake they had ever experienced in the City. Carl, meanwhile, thought I was completely crazy to go back into the building, and paced nervously up and down the sidewalk. The restaurant didn’t suffer any damage that I could see; our food was still on the table and all pictures and ornaments were still on the walls. The only broken items were from Carl’s encounter with the front table; I thought it wryly amusing that he caused more damage to the restaurant than the quake had.

Of course, the power was off and the waitress couldn’t use the cash register, but the bill came to exactly $20 and she threw in the beer for free. I handed her the money and wished her luck. She laughed and replied, “I bet you didn’t think this visit would be so….eventful, huh?” I agreed with her.

I went outside and found Carl, and we decided to walk the three blocks up Noe St. to his parked car, sit inside and listen to the radio. We felt several strong aftershocks as the various reports of damage throughout the Bay Area trickled in. We watched people walking across the nearby intersection holding radios to their ears and open bottles of beer to their mouths, eyes glazed in shock from those fifteen seconds of Nature shaking her booty. I found it difficult to conceive of the quake’s powerful effect. How could something which lasted only a few seconds wreak such havoc?

The radio soon reported the horrible collapse of the Bay Bridge section and mile of Nimitz Freeway, along with the fires springing up in the Marina area. 60,000 baseball fans waited in Candlestick Park for the third game of the World Series to begin. Carl laughed, remarking how ludicrous it was for people to think about baseball at a time like this.

We sat in the car for over an hour listening to the news, then saw the nutritionist Irene passing by (since her apartment was down the block). Carl flagged her down to ask if we could hang out at her apartment while deciding what to do next, and Irene said, “Sure, join the crowd.”  She had been with two women clients when the quake hit, and I quipped, “They really got an earth-shaking nutritional reading today, didn’t they?”

Carl had no intention of trying to get back to Sacramento that night, so I suggested phoning my friend Paul to see if we could stay at his place. Luckily, the quake hadn’t seriously damaged the City’s phone system, so we were able to get through to Paul after waiting 20 seconds for a dial-tone. I told him that Carl & I would drive there after the heavy traffic had abated somewhat.

Irene’s upstairs apartment hadn’t suffered damage except for an overturned bookshelf. She left to check on some neighbors, so the two women clients sat with Carl & me on the front steps. That particular neighborhood of Noe St. just north of Market seemed fine, although the power was off. We watched the news on Irene’s next-door neighbor’s battery-operated TV, grimacing in horror as we saw the collapsed section of Oakland’s highway 880. Many folks congregated on the sidewalk in front of the neighbor’s tiny TV, many of them were in a mild form of shock. I realized that I must have been in a similar condition to have downplayed my reactions to the quake as I did when it was happening, for it was really quite a serious event. It hit me hard later.

It was soon dark —  very dark without electricity. We sat on the front steps and watched the groups of people walking by with flashlights and radios and candles.  Someone warned us that they had heard on TV that scientists were predicting a strong aftershock in about 45 minutes. One agreeable result of no electricity: the stars could be seen shining brightly in a clear sky. Luckily, temperatures were mild that night, after an unusually warm day.

Irene came back and went upstairs to her fridge, and brought down fruit popsicles for the gang. Carl & I thanked her for everything, then decided to drive to Paul’s. Carl allowed me to drive, and after looking carefully at a map determined the best way to go: south on Dolores, which turned into San Jose, on to Monterey and then to Paul’s on Staples. Traffic was light at 9 P.M. and we arrived safely. Amazingly, that part of the city had electricity; Paul & Liza said that the power had just come on five minutes before we got there.

Their house suffered no structural damage as far as they could tell — even their kitchen, an addition to the original house, was fine. Paul was in that room when the quake hit; only a few champagne and wine glasses crashed to the floor from a shelf.  He could hear things shattering in the livingroom, however, and discovered that Liza’s large grandfather clock had tumbled to the floor. Clay pots and knick-knacks on the mantel had fallen, but were cushioned by landing on the fireplace screen which had tipped over. A couple of pictures jumped off the walls, and that was the extent of the damage at Paul & Liza’s.

Liza, meanwhile, was on a MUNI train which had just arrived at the station where she usually gets off after work. No-one on the train actually felt the quake, and wondered why everything came to a grinding halt. Finally, an announcement was made about the quake; MUNI would follow “standard procedure” — sitting tight for the moment. The train hadn’t pulled into the station completely, so everyone evacuated from the front car. All sorts of wild thoughts went through Liza’s mind as she hurried home, and arrived to find that Paul had nearly finished cleaning up the mess. Relief!

By the time that Carl & I arrived, Liza had consumed a couple bottles of white wine and was feeling no pain. I decided to join her. It was wonderful to see Paul & Liza again, even under such bizarre circumstances, and we had much news to catch up on.

Liza reported that the San Francisco Opera House suffered extensive damage; the new additional building (behind the older, main section) had separated from it! So the current opera has been cancelled (and probably the rest of the season) as Management attempts to assess the damage. I asked what happens to the musicians, and Liza replied that everyone’s insured.

Everyone except me went to bed around midnight; I stayed up watching the news on TV, which was fascinating. As the hours went by, the quake information became more comprehensive. The news anchors did a wonderful job of on-the-spot reporting; they were very professional. Finally, at 3 A.M. I went to bed.

We slept late until 11. Paul had already returned from taking Liza to the airport, and he fixed us a delicious breakfast of pancakes and scrambled eggs.

Carl & I headed back to Sacramento at 1 o’clock. We had to figure out a good way to get to the Golden Gate Bridge; 19th Ave. was closed. We ended up driving along the ocean road, which eventually led us to the bridge. We breathed sighs of relief after successfully crossing the Golden Gate….then headed up Hwy. 101 to #37 to Vallejo and Hwy. 80. It was another unusually hot day, strange & oppressive.

We arrived in Sacramento at 3 P.M., two hours after leaving S.F. It was definitely a relief to be home, and we have spent many hours sleeping these past two days.

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One of the things which strikes me the most, reading over this journal entry from twenty years ago, is that the earthquake itself lasted only the few seconds, but the aftermath lingered for much, much longer. For years — even to the present day.