San Francisco, 1989. The big earthquake.

It wasn’t the first work day interrupted by plate tectonics. And it wouldn’t be the last. Usually an earthquake causes a momentary shift in the conversation. The ground begins to shake. Discussion stops. Everyone is a human Richter scale, assessing the magnitude. Then nervous laughs and jittery comments: “Wow. That was a big one. One more second and I would have been under the table.”

On that October day, it was a big one. The sudden jolt and extended shaking had everyone up and out of their seats. In an open-plan office there aren’t many doorways to stand in. Diving under a desk is advised, but never practiced. In all the quakes I’d experienced, I’d never seen anyone take cover under a table or desk. I’ve decided people would prefer being crushed by the roof rather than dying of embarrassment.

The studio where I worked was in an old brick building near the waterfront, but built on bedrock and recently reinforced. When the shaking lasted longer than the usual trembler, I heard a coworker say, “I’m getting out of here!”

“Don’t leave the building!” I shouted. “Don’t leave the building.” That was it, my one moment of heroism. Walking around the City in the days after, I saw brick facades and window shards piled  on sidewalks. Our building remained intact, but what if?

The power was out, but sun still shone through the skylights. At first we went back to work. In a busy design studio there were deadlines to meet. The designers went back to their drafting boards; as a project manager I had slides to sort and a proposal to draft. Those with radios switched to battery power. After a while someone called out, “The bridge has collapsed!” That’s when the work stopped.

The news said the Oakland Bay Bridge had collapsed.

“Did you hear that right?”

“What does that mean?”

With no TV, we could only imagine. Gradually all the designers, managers, and support staff gravitated to the front lobby. The partners had left for the Giants game. They were already in the stadium, so there was no chance of reaching them on their car phones. Bits of news trickled in. The Marina was on fire. Power out throughout the City. Only one phone in the office didn’t rely on electricity; people lined up to make calls. I hung back, remembering the authorities’ advice not to clog phone lines with non-emergency calls.

Everyone thought it best to stay put until we learned more. I was relieved; I didn’t have to go home alone to my apartment. Josh, the production manager, had a Vespa scooter and he went out to take a look. For those of us left behind, our first thought was to pull out all available consumables in the office. Since the company specialized in retail package design, this amounted to a collection of cereal, candies, ice cream, and Effie Marie’s gourmet rum cake. And some pretty good quality Napa wine. I don’t think anybody believed this would be our last meal, but making a party of the situation allowed us to pass the time while we listened for news from the rest of the City.

When Josh returned on his Vespa we gathered around to hear his news.

“There are places where the streets are buckled up to here,” he held his hand at knee level.

We stared in disbelief.

“No, really,” Josh wasn’t the kidding sort. “Entire apartment buildings have collapsed into the street.”

We looked into his eyes. They said, “Don’t doubt me.”

“There are fires all over the Marina district.”

As we listened to his descriptions, my parents in Seattle were watching reports on TV of crumbled and burning buildings. Helicopters were flying over the collapsed freeway. Only after watching an hour or so of the total and complete destruction of San Francisco did they realize they were seeing the same footage over and over again. But there was no word from their daughter who was in the midst of it all.

It was about two hours after the initial quake when I decided to step up to that one functioning phone and call home. We were still without power, and the sun had set on the City. Dad picked up the phone first, and he was casual. “Good to hear from you,” he said without a hint of irony. When I heard my Mom’s voice I realized my obedience to phone call restrictions had a cruel result. Her voice was an intense mixture of tears and relief.

They were getting calls from relatives all around the country. I reassured Mom I was okay and she described what she was seeing on TV. I had to steel myself to go see what was left of my apartment. I told my parents I would call again when I got home.

With both bridges closed, the office crew needed to figure out where our North Bay and East Bay colleagues were going to spend the night. As people started to leave the office, those with larger apartments or houses took along those who wouldn’t be able to make it home. It wasn’t until around 10 pm that I decided to brave the dark streets and go alone to my tiny one bedroom place. I grabbed my Rolodex and headed to the car. The familiar route through the City was now a pitch black tunnel. I drove slowly down each block, aware that the shaking earth could have significantly modified the terrain. At last I reached a prominent intersection and saw lights. Flashlights. Ordinary people were standing in the middle of intersections conducting traffic with their flashlights. Hardly the scenes of terror and panic Hollywood likes to imagine in a disaster.

I finally reached my dark apartment building on a dark corner in the blacked-out Sunset district. I stepped into the lobby. The front door was wide open, but I faced the unknown. The old Poseidon Adventure movie came to mind with its upside-down watery world. I realized I couldn’t depend on the building being intact and wondered if the stairs were safe. I had to reach my place on the third floor, so I put my foot tentatively on the first step and tapped to make sure it would hold my weight. Then I stepped up to test the next one. Each step was like ascending an unfamiliar staircase blindfolded. Tap. Step. Tap. Step…Going ever so slowly I managed to reach the first floor. Then I crossed the landing and prepared for my assault on the next two floors. Suddenly a door opened and a beam of light shone into the hallway. It was a neighbor I’d never met.

“Here,” he said, “I’ll help you to your apartment.” He guided me with his flashlight up the next two floors and left after I got the key in the lock.

Inside was an obstacle course. “It’s just stuff,”I said to myself as I stepped around the debris. Shards of ceramic mugs mixed with colorful spice powders on the floor of the little kitchen. Knickknacks looked as if they’d been swept by an angry person off shelves and dressers onto the floor. Photos I’d hung by long cords from the picture molding had flipped and were facing the wall. It was silent. And dark. And I was all alone.

I went for a drink of water. When I opened the kitchen cabinet a glass flew at me, bounced off the narrow counter, and shattered on the floor. The suddenness of it, the violent crash, terrified me and frazzled my nerves.

I decided in that moment to find a companion in the City I could stay with. I called Frank, a very ex-boyfriend who lived in a basement apartment in Pacific Heights. I informed him that I was coming over. I began filling a small daypack with things. What would I need? I really wasn’t prepared. A bottle of water. A bag of saltines. My wallet and ID. A couple cans of tuna and my Swiss Army knife.

Mid-way through the scramble to evacuate the dark and damaged apartment, the lights came on. That changed everything. I flipped on the TV and saw for the first time what the rest of the world was seeing on the news. Suddenly I felt secure and back in my element. I called Frank and told him I wasn’t going to come over. I didn’t really want to see him anyway.

After getting my fill of earthquake news, I knew I needed some sleep. That night, and for several nights to come, I slept fully dressed. I worried what would happen if the building collapsed. I didn’t want to be found under the rubble naked. I felt the aftershocks most acutely as I lay there trying to get to sleep, and each one jolted me awake, reminding me of my fear. It was dark and quiet at our end of town. I wasn’t even sure what I’d do when the sun came up again.

Noise on the roof awoke me. This is it, I thought. The building is going to collapse. In a sleepy haze, I tried to think what to do. Then the noise was at my window. Voices. On the fire escape. Three floors above the street. Looters. There were looters outside my window!

I don’t know what possessed me to go to the window. I didn’t bother grabbing my glasses, and this meant it would be hard to distinguish faces. I pinched the curtains apart just a finger’s-width and peeked out. Someone was standing on the fire escape! Someone was standing on the fire escape just inches from me wearing a hospital gown.

“Liz! Liz, it’s Suzanne. Open the window!”

What was my neighbor doing on our shared fire escape in a hospital gown at two in the morning?

I turned away, letting the curtains shut behind me, and went over to get my glasses. With things in better focus I approached the window again. Now I saw three people on the fire escape. And Suzanne was indeed wearing a hospital gown.

“I can’t get into my apartment,” she said.

Suzanne had been in a motorcycle accident in Oakland shortly after the quake and her keys were still in the bike when she was taken to the hospital. She’d had to call friends to pick her up. With the Bay Bridge broken they’d driven the long way around to get her back to San Francisco.

There she stood, a flimsy gown wrapped around her; window glass separating her from her own bed. The solution came to me in an instant. Something I probably wouldn’t have considered on any other night. But it seemed so obvious this night.

“Break the window,” I said. I pointed to the little squares of glass in the bay window. “Break the window. It’ll be just one more broken window in a city full of broken windows tonight.”

I got a towel and handed it to one of the guys. He wrapped it over his hand and punched through the small pane above the latch. Then he pulled up the bottom sash. They squeezed inside and unlocked the apartment door. For a couple hours we sat in Suzanne’s studio apartment with the single shattered windowpane and shared our stories of the day the earth shook.

When the next morning finally dawned, I confirmed it would be a few days before I’d have to return to work. I took my camera and my backpack and walked around the neighborhood taking pictures. Most of the area looked undamaged, but a few of the old buildings had sloughed off brick facades and they were laying in heaps on the sidewalk. The front porch of a small home had fallen away. In the window was a handwritten sign: “We’re all okay, thank you very much!”

I was okay, too. Thank you very much.


Copyright 2017, Liz Behlke