The recent tragedy in NYC and Washington is still fresh in our memories, and we all remember where we were and what we were doing on September 11th, 2001. But what about other turning-points in history? Think about a turning-point in history that you remember. What were you doing that day? Where were you when you heard about it? How did you respond to it, and how did it affect you?
Tuesday, October 17, 1989 - 5:04 PM, to be precise - is one of those moments that will always live on in my mind. That was when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck.
The images seen by most of the world were of San Francisco, where all the media were gathered for the World Series. It was a Bay Bridge series, with the Oakland A's facing off against the SF Giants, and a large part of the upper deck of the Bay Bridge came crashing down onto the lower deck, trapping and killing several people. In the SF Marina, soft reclaimed land gave in to liquifaction, and broken gas lines exploded into flames.
But Loma Preita was not in San Francisco. The epicenter was about 65 miles to the south, under the Forest of Nicene Marks State Park in Santa Cruz county. I was just a few miles north of Nicene Marks, in a classroom at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
The late Richard Gordon, a brilliant Australian with a great sense of humor, was lecturing about comparative politics of advanced capitalist states when the room started to rock. Most of us did as we've been trained and got under our desks, some ran out the back of the classroom onto the quad. As the room continued to rock, with plaster chips falling all around us, I caught Richard's eyes. "Quite a shaker! Quite a shaker!" he kept saying with a big grin, and that great accent of his. Then I turned to watch the TV mounted to the wall to see if it would fall. It swung from side to side, spewing plaster, but somehow held its spot.
The first aftershock came only about fifteen seconds after the actual earthquake ended and lasted nearly as long. When all was said and done, I retook my seat, and Richard considered continuing the class. We had no lights and several people were in near hysterics, so Richard finally said we'd continue on Thursday. School, however, would prove to be closed for nearly two more weeks before we could resume.
On being let out of class, I walked first to the Applied Sciences building, to check the seismograph. Unfortunately, it shattered in the quake and Applied Sciences was being evacuated due to cracks emerging in the structure. Walking across campus to my car I came across a group of students with a battery-operated radio. We listened to the damage reports from San Francisco, but heard nothing about Santa Cruz. We thought that we were just on the edge of their quake, and only later found out that we were actually the hardest hit.
Still, sitting, listening to the radio, I watched as a range of hills to the south rose and fell, then the range in front of them rose and fell, and so on, getting closer and closer until the ground beneath us also rose and fell, like a wave you've watched come to shore and wash over you, the earth was rolling out swells from Nicene Marks up to the Golden Gate.
I slept in my car that first night, as without lights it was too dangerous to enter among all the broken glass in my tiny apartment - besides, I didn't trust the building to remain standing. It was only a few hours before phone service was restored, a couple of days for electricity, and nearly a week for safe flowing water.
More than half of downtown Santa Cruz businesses were completely destroyed. While the world worried about San Francisco, our town was isolated and nearly in ruin. The absolute number of lives lost and structures downed may have been slightly higher in the City, but percentage wise, nothing could compare to what we were going through. We were also effectively quarantined, as the only highways out of the county were all wiped out by either land-slides or collapsed bridges.
That moment changed my life in many ways. One was the building of my friendship with Leslie, who would one day become my wife, as we each searched in vain for each other that first night. Another was the direction of my career. I was studying Politics, with an emphasis on international relations, at the same time I had just taken a job with the County Planning Department. In the aftermath of the quake I saw how even the most mundane of jobs in a local setting could make a huge impact on a community, and in the lives of individuals. I've worked in community settings ever since. The Loma Prieta earthquake has continued to touch my life in many other more subtle ways as well.
One day, when we were living in Sacramento, I was taking the bus home from work, as I always did, when I suddenly felt a shiver run through my body. I just about jumped out of my seat and felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. I had no idea what that shudder was about until I looked at my watch: it was 5:04 PM, on October 17, 1994 - the fifth anniversary of Loma Prieta. Sometimes, even when the conscious mind has put something away, the body still remembers.
Professor Richard Gordon, with whom I took a couple of courses and considered one of my favorites, died of cancer in 1996, the same year that Leslie and I got married. But I swear, I'll never forget his face, or his distinctive voice crying out, "Quite a shaker! Quite a shaker!"