San Francisco Cataclysm, 17 October 1989: The Day Baseball Saved Lives


Excitement was palpable in the San Francisco Bay Area in October of 1989.  For the first time, the region’s two Major League Baseball teams – the San Francisco Giants of the National League and the Oakland Athletics (or A’s) of the American League – were meeting in the World Series to decide Major League Baseball’s championship.

The first two games of the best-of-seven-game series, both played in Oakland on the eastern side of the Bay, had gone to the A’s.  For the third game, the event dubbed “The Bay Bridge Series” shifted to the Giants’ home stadium, Candlestick Park, across the Bay in San Francisco.  Game 3 was due to start at 5:35 p.m. local time on Tuesday, October 17th, 25 years ago today.

I was six weeks into my first year of physics graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, grabbing a quick pre-ballgame nap in my room in the International House, which faced west toward the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.  Suddenly I became aware that my pillow was shaking underneath my cheek.  In fact, the whole room was shaking.  From outside came a rushing sound, as groves of nearby eucalyptus trees shuddered in unison.  Figuring that this new experience was an earthquake (and not afraid, since this was my first quake), I stood up and braced myself in my doorway until the movement had stopped.

An earthquake feels like turbulence on an airplane.  This is unnerving, since the ground is not supposed to move.

Official reports later stated that the October 1989 quake had lasted for about 15 seconds.  When it was over, a dissonant chorus of clamoring car alarms filled the Berkeley air.  “That was a big one,” declared one of my neighbors, a several-year California resident, as we descended five floors (via the stairs!) to the dining room for supper.  The hundreds of International House residents who convened for the evening meal were buzzing with nervous energy.  Soup had sloshed out of tureens onto the floor, and the dining room’s gargantuan cast iron chandeliers swung gently on their 20-foot chains for nearly an hour after the quake.  The few earthquake veterans in the room understood that any temblor that lasted for as long as 15 seconds was a big deal, but none of us knew at first just how serious the damage was.

In fact, the earthquake had been powerful, registering a 7.1 on the Richter scale.  The epicenter was near Loma Prieta mountain, between Aptos and Santa Cruz, about 70 miles south of both San Francisco and Berkeley, on a stretch of the San Andreas fault which had been quiescent for many years.

Over in Candlestick Park, ABC TV announcers Tim McCarver, Al Michaels, and Jim Palmer had been engrossed in a scripted lead-up to the evening’s baseball broadcast.  In the middle of a game highlight, the stadium’s crowd started to roar, the TV picture broke up, and Michaels yelled, “We’re having an earth-,” before the TV signal disappeared.  ABC was able to resume live audio after a 16-second blackout.  A nervous Al Michaels was heard to quip, “Well folks, that’s the greatest open in the history of television, bar none!”


The ABC broadcasters later reported that each had grabbed what he believed to be an armrest but which was actually another broadcaster’s lower limb.  They gripped their “armrests” so tightly during their 15 seconds of terror that each of the men went home that evening with bruises.

Candlestick Park had been constructed on bedrock and had undergone recent seismic retrofitting.  No one in the baseball crowd was injured, and the stadium suffered minimal damage. Game 3 was summarily postponed.  For the rest of the evening, ABC used Al Michaels as a breaking news reporter and the Goodyear Blimp for overhead shots of the quake’s aftermath.

From Monterey in the south to Richmond in the north, fallout from the earthquake was both extensive and costly.  Damage was especially severe in “landfill” areas of San Francisco and Oakland (neighborhoods built upon sand and debris dumped into the Bay), where seismic waves caused liquefaction, and the muddy soil vibrated like gelatin.

PGM_1 The Pacific Garden Mall in Santa Cruz.

In Santa Cruz, three people were killed when several structures in the Pacific Garden Mall collapsed.

SF_Wall_Collapse Fallen bricks on Sixth Street in San Francisco.

In San Francisco, five people were killed in the South of Market district when a brick façade collapsed onto a sidewalk.  (There are very few brick buildings in the Bay Area, because mortar behaves like a liquid during an earthquake.)

Highway_1_Slough_Wikipedia State Highway 1 near Watsonville. (Photo from Wikipedia.)

In Watsonville (80 miles south of San Francisco and about 10 miles from the quake’s epicenter), one lane of a State Highway 1 causeway collapsed into the slough below.  No one was injured.

St_Jos_Seminary_Tower_Collapse St. Joseph’s Seminary. (Photo from Wikipedia.)

One person was killed when a five-story tower collapsed at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Mountain View.  Several other buildings on the campus were damaged.  The seminary was forced to close in 1991.  One may speculate that the costs of repairs were prohibitive.

Marina_Dist_1 Damage in San Francisco’s Marina district.

Marina_Fire_Close-up_2 The Marina district fire. (Still from ABC News.)

In San Francisco’s Marina district (built on landfill composed in part of debris from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake), four people died, seven buildings collapsed, and a gas main broke, triggering a fire that consumed four structures.

Bay_Bridge_1089_2 The damaged Bay Bridge.

On the double-decker San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, one section of the upper deck broke free from its supports and collapsed onto the lower deck.  One person died in the confusing melee as officials evaculated stranded motorists from the bridge.

Cypress_1     Cypress_7

The worst loss of life occurred on the Cypress Viaduct (Interstate 880), a double-decker freeway built in a landfill neighborhood in West Oakland.  Along a 1.25-mile-long section, the freeway’s upper deck pancaked onto the lower deck, instantly killing motorists trapped underneath.  Forty-two people died at that hideous scene.

Roughly 1.4 million Bay Area residents lost power.  I remember well the view from my dormitory window of a San Francisco eerily and completely dark except for the blazing Marina district fire.

Marina_Fire_and_GG_Bridge_from_ABC_Blimp A still from ABC News showing the Marina District fire surrounded by darkened city blocks, with the lights of the Golden Gate bridge in the background.

Telephone circuits filled up rapidly in that era before cell phones.  I finally spoke to my family in the early evening.  Late that night, I served as a relay for family friends in Wisconsin and who were unable to contact their son in Berkeley.  I reached him and ascertained that he was OK and then called his frantic parents with the good news.

News about major damage to the campus of the University of California at Santa Cruz became distorted by overseas media into stories of severe damage at UC Berkeley.  For several days after the quake, European and Asian students in the International House were hearing from misinformed relatives who were understandably alarmed.

The Loma Prieta Earthquake caused 63 deaths and billions of dollars worth of damage to buildings and transportation structures, many of which were declared unsafe after the quake and subsequently demolished.

After the shock and horror of the quake’s immediate aftermath had dissipated, and after basic services had been restored, it became clear that the quake’s death toll could have been much higher if traffic on the catastrophically damaged transportation arteries had been heavier.  Initial estimates of the quake’s death toll, which were based upon typical Tuesday evening rush hour patterns, were higher than the actual death toll by a factor of five.

Because of the World Series game scheduled for the late afternoon, many commuters had either headed home early or stayed late at their places of work to watch the game with their colleagues.  Quite literally, the 1989 World Series saved lives.

Ten days after the earthquake, the Series resumed at Candlestick Park with Game 3.  The A’s won both Game 3 and Game 4, completing a sweep and earning the franchise’s ninth World Championship.

Quote for Today

“If he moved that fast, he’d never hit into a double play. I never saw anyone move that fast in my life.” – broadcaster Jack Buck (1924 -2002), describing ex-Major League catcher Johnny Bench’s flight for cover during the earthquake.


3 thoughts on “San Francisco Cataclysm, 17 October 1989: The Day Baseball Saved Lives

Leave a Reply

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

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

Google+ photo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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


Connecting to %s