Living Too Close to the Edge: Remembering the Oakland Hills Firestorm on its 25th Anniversary

For several years in the 1990s, as a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, on the Oakland side of the Bay — or the “East Bay,” as it is colloquially known.

California is by turns breathtakingly beautiful and suffocatingly crowded, serene and self-righteous, chaotic and bucolic.   After only weeks in residence, one can acquire a sense of living “on the edge,” only small steps from disaster.  Calamities in California are as dramatic as they are frequent.

Houses perched precariously in Santa Cruz or elsewhere on the coast occasionally tumble over the cliffs.


Heavy rains lead to mud slides that in turn cause mansions in Marin County to toboggan downhill and collide with other houses.


Forest fires scorch huge swaths of Southern California every summer.


Nearly every year (or so it seems) drought conditions lead to the forced rationing of water, because California’s outdated reservoirs and water supply system cannot support its burgeoning population.


A burning fuel truck can destroy a stretch of elevated highway and cause traffic snarls for months.


Major geographic faults running through the state’s population centers – most notably San Francisco and Los Angeles – wreak periodic mayhem and cast a shadow of potential calamity over every day in those metro areas.  (See my first-person account of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake.)


Even the less famous cracks in the earth, such as the East Bay’s Hayward Fault (which bisects the University of California’s football stadium and forced the university to build that structure in two separate sections), are expected to produce major quakes in the near future.


Much of California’s population, even in metro areas, lives in close proximity to canyons, ravines, arid grasslands, or woodlands.  It is on the interfaces between California’s human habitation and its wilderness, especially among the numerous steep hills, that the state’s disasters are most costly.

One such “interface” disaster occurred 25 years ago today, on the 20th of October, 1991.

It was a Sunday.  I lived in Berkeley at the time.  I remember noticing unusually strong winds rushing through the treetops and blasting away the clouds on that unseasonably warm day. I might even have thought, “This would be a terrible day for a fire,” although it is impossible for me to know now what is memory and what is hindsight.

Late morning, I was nestled in a papasan chair engaged in some mundane task — darning a sock? — when I noticed through a south facing window the sky had turned yellow.  Bizarre as that seemed, I did not pay it much heed.  Only after another quarter-hour or so, finally aware of the fire engines and emergency vehicles screaming southward past my house, did I step outside to see what was going on.


Billowing over the steep hillsides east of the city of Oakland was a cloud of smoke the size of a small town.  A cacophony of sirens pierced the air.  The East Bay hills, home to numerous wooded residential areas, were burning out of control.


The East Bay consists, essentially, of a very long hillside and mountain ridge that runs from Richmond in the north to Fremont and the Silicon Valley in the south, with Oakland and Berkeley roughly in the middle.  To the west is the San Francisco Bay.  From the shoreline, gently sloping flats extend eastward, gradually growing steeper and eventually merging with rugged foothills roughly six or seven miles inland.

Lower-income neighborhoods are situated in the flats.  Affluence of the cities’ residents correlates roughly with distance from the Bay, altitude of the neighborhood, and gradient of the local hills.  Many of the area’s wealthiest neighborhoods, and most of the largest houses, are located near the ridgeline and were on that October day most threatened by the ravenous blaze.

The East Bay fire actually started on October 19th, the night before the disaster.  Firefighters were called to a burning grassland high in the Oakland hills.  They believed (incorrectly, alas) that the flames had been quenched and the danger averted.

On the morning of the 20th, the grass fire flared up.  Southwesterly gusts up to 70 miles per hour spread the blaze rapidly from the prairie into adjacent woodlands.  Burning debris took flight on the winds, outpacing and overwhelming local firefighting crews.  Dense groves of Eucalyptus trees, whose oily wood burns at high temperature, crackled and exploded, flinging incendiary fragments onto nearby structures.  By midday, the conflagration had become a firestorm producing its own roaring winds.


Crews from as far south as Bakersfield, as far north as the Oregon border, and as far east as Nevada fought the blaze as it spread from wood-shingled house to wood-shingled house in hillside neighborhoods.  Within the first hour, 790 structures had been destroyed.  At its peak, the 107-alarm fire consumed a house every 11 seconds.


Firefighters were hampered throughout the chaotic day by a variety of problems, some preventable.  The neighborhoods’ winding, hilly streets were difficult for firetrucks to navigate, especially in smoke-limited visibility.  Radio communication was difficult, because fire companies used different frequencies.  The blaze knocked out power to 17 pumping stations in Oakland, causing some firefighters to run out of water.  The Oakland hydrants’ hose outlets were of a non-standard size, making them incompatible with hoses from some of the assisting companies.  Many streets were clogged with parked cars, some blocking fire hydrants.

(Don’t ever park in front of a fire hydrant!)


As my housemates and I alternated between watching TV coverage in horror and gazing out our own front windows, the blaze raged wildly through the late afternoon.  I packed a go-bag and eventually spent the night at a friend’s house downhill.

Only a lessening of the wind speed at about 5 p.m. permitted the crews to begin to attempt containment.  The fire was not declared fully under control until 8 a.m. on October 23.


My housemates and I were fortunate.  Located downhill and within urbanized south Berkeley, safely away from the flaming dense brush and vegetation, we avoided the fire.

Uphill of us was sheer devastation.  The blaze had consumed 1,520 acres of land and destroyed 2,843 single-family homes and 437 apartment and condominium units.

Twenty-five people were killed. One hundred sixty-three were injured.

In the weeks and months that followed, the devastated area was an eerie scar on the East Bay landscape.  Where once the slopes and canyons had been patched with greenery and dotted at night with street- and house-lights, the hillside was dull gray and perpetually dark.


Even many months later, a drive through the afflicted neighborhoods found street after street in which all that remained of a household was a chimney and possibly a burnt-out car.




(As a somewhat bizarre footnote, much the same area of the East Bay hills had burned in September of 1970.  Some families lost their homes in both 1970 and 1991.)

All the blighted neighborhoods have been rebuilt.  Modern homes have supplanted their gutted antecedents.  Trees, shrubs, and flowers have sprouted anew.

The replacement homes, finished in stucco or other fire-resistant siding, are safer than their predecessors, many of which were sheathed in highly flammable cedar shake shingles.

The Oakland and Berkeley fire departments have put in place protocols to ensure radio communication.  Oakland has built a new fire station in the hills and equipped all of its crews with improved wildfire fighting equipment.  Oakland also replaced its fire hydrants to ensure compatibility with standard hoses.

To this day, many residents of the East Bay (and elsewhere in California) continue to live on the interface with the wilderness.

Recent precautions and newly instituted safety measures notwithstanding, it is likely that the East Bay hills will burn again.






Happy First Birthday, Northwoods Listener!


A new adventure!  One year ago today, I published my first Northwoods Listener post, “3, 2, 1,…

Since that day, my 38 posts have drawn 8,449 views.  Readers have hailed from six continents and 82 countries, including such disparate lands as St. Vincent & and Grenadines, Moldova, Uganda, French Polynesia, Namibia, Vietnam, Jordan, Belarus, Indonesia, Slovenia, the UAE, Armenia, South Sudan, and Curaçao.

Twitter (1,418) and Facebook (956) have generated most of the traceable hits.  An additional 467 have come from search engines.  Among the 73 sets of search terms visible to me are these intriguing gems:

  • cary grant sunglasses north by northwest
  • russell wilson myers briggs
  • myers briggs russell wilson
  • cary grant puzzle 1000 pices
  • owen teale and final solution drama
  • frank pembleton ‘get out of my blood’
  • anthony quinn thanksgiving movie youtube christmas
  • the personable robin ellis
  • poldark the breathtakingly beautiful robin ellis
  • robin ellis has such a dreamy voice.

For those who are interested, here are the year’s eleven most popular posts, each of which was read more than 200 times:

1. Falling Hard for Captain Poldark (644 views)
A tribute to Robin Ellis, who portrayed the title character in the 1975 production of Poldark.

2. Going it Alone: Character Lessons from the Gladiatorial Combat that is Singles Tennis (576 views)
Gripping drama on the blazing-hot tennis courts of the 2015 Australian Open.

3. What’s All the Noise About? – A Guide to the 2014 U.S. Midterm Elections (366 views)
A detailed preview of last November’s U.S. elections, written for an international audience.

4. It’s the Size of the Fight in the Dog: Russell Wilson Proves the Experts Wrong (338 views)
A salute to the former Wisconsin Badger and current Seattle Seahawk star quarterback Russell Wilson, published four months before his catastrophic failure at the 2015 Superbowl.

5. Ninety Minutes that Changed the World: “Conspiracy” and the Wannsee Conference (290 views)
An historical perspective on the Wannsee Conference, the convocation of evil at which 15 representatives of the Third Reich set in motion the machinery for Hitler’s Final Solution.

6. San Francisco Cataclysm, 17 October 1989: The Day Baseball Saved Lives (222 views)
Memories of the magnitude-7.1 earthquake that rocked the Central California coast during the 1989 World Series.

7. Tennis on the Distaff Side: U.S. Open Preview, Part II of III (220 views)
A preview of the women’s singles competition at the 2014 U.S. Open, including players’ noise ratings.

8. I Was There: Remembering the MS Estonia Twenty Years Later (212 views)
My first-hand account of the horrors of the sinking of the MS Estonia.

9. From Forward Roll to Starring Role: Cary Grant’s Conscious Creation of Himself (210 views)
Archibald Leach’s transformation into Cary Grant.

10. Order out of Chaos: Life Lessons Learned by a Puzzling Aficionado (209 views)
The joys and challenges of assembling jigsaw puzzles, and lessons to be learned along the way.

11. Virtuoso Victor Borge, the Irrepressible “Clown Prince of Denmark” (204 views)
A paean to the always delightful Victor Borge, with excerpts of some of his best performances.

Among my personal favorites:

“Homicide, Sweet Homicide.” – Eight Reasons to Check out the Best Series Ever Produced for Network Television

ENFJ? ISTP? – I C U R YY 4 Me!

The Disco Beat: On the Fly with an Avian Impressionist


Close Encounters of No Kind in Particular.


To all my readers and followers, thank you!


P.S. Stick around.  I will return to full-time writing on the first day of September.







An Ode to the Nameless Heroes


“All’s well that ends well,” declared Shakespeare in about 1605.  Six weeks ago Tuesday, when I returned home from the local Emergency Department, I was inclined agree.

All might not have been well, however, without the ministrations of Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) from the Madison Fire Department and the cool-headed competence of a 911 operator.  I am told that a fire truck, a police car, and an ambulance all showed up at my house, although I never saw the fire truck.  Parked as it was immediately in front of the house, it somehow escaped my notice.

I remember seeing the fireman, the policeman, and a number of EMTs.  I don’t know any of their names.  I couldn’t even tell you exactly how many there were.  Such was the state of my consciousness.

I do remember their focused and efficient care.  A wonderful, warm-hearted, and terribly concerned fireman (thick-set and very good-looking too, although that was completely irrelevant) started proceedings by asking me if I knew my name.  When they had ascertained that I had sustained no head injuries, two of them carried me from the top of the stairs to a spot near the bottom where I could sit as they worked.  One EMT, a woman, continued asking questions from my left as she took my blood pressure (something ridiculously low, along the lines of 67/40) and other vital signs.  On my right, a man worked swiftly and in near silence to measure an instant blood glucose level from a fingerstick.

This continued for probably five or six minutes.  My ability to measure time was compromised.

While awaiting the EMTs’ arrival from a seat at the top of the stairs, I had heard a rush of white noise in my ears.  By the time I reached the bottom of the stairs, the white noise had abated, but my view of the scene was breaking up, as though I were seeing everything reflected in a shattered mirror.  It seemed that my brain could not assemble a complete visual picture and had to settle for a collection of discrete sections divided by pale, wavy boundary lines.   I decided that my most important – and perhaps only – job was to maintain consciousness.  Toward that end I devoted all of my energy, so I never saw the fire truck.

Two strong men strapped me into a chair and carried me down the front steps to a gurney waiting at the top of the driveway.  They pushed me on the gurney down the at-times-inconveniently steep driveway and loaded me into the back of the waiting ambulance, where the competent and confidence-inspiring lady EMT started me on a bag of intravenous fluids.  I asked whether she could do anything for some pain and nausea.  She said no about the pain but gave me an IV push drug that stopped the nausea almost immediately.  After she had called ahead to alert the Emergency Room of our imminent arrival, we departed.  I had never realized how bumpy my street was before riding over it while lying on my back.

Later, my mother asked whether I had noticed the three neighbors on the next-door driveway watching as the ambulance loaded and left.  I replied that I hadn’t even noticed the next-door driveway.

The Emergency Department physicians and staff were terrific.  Excellent bedside manner was the rule of the day.  Three hours later I was back home with normal vital signs, no new medical problems, and notes about how to make sure the crazy events of that afternoon would never recur.

All of the drama had come about because of blood loss and some very poor judgment on my part, most likely as a consequence of the blood loss.  One lesson I draw from the whole affair is that someone under the influence of heatstroke, blood loss, or dehydration cannot be trusted to make sound decisions.

I knew on that Tuesday morning that something was wrong.  I should have gone to pains to replenish fluids but did not, so I became, unwittingly, quite dehydrated.  In the early afternoon, I decided to see a doctor but wanted to grab a quick shower first.  That turned out to be a mistake.

I had at times in the past been lightheaded in a shower, but never as badly as this.  I turned off the water and stuck my head into cooler room air in an unsuccessful attempt to catch my breath.  At about this time I decided that although a bathroom floor isn’t normally a salubrious resting place, a lie-down on the floor was very appealing.  Then followed waves of nausea.  My mother knocked on the door in alarm. “Are you all right?  Should I call an ambulance?”

“I don’t need an ambulance,” I slurred defiantly, my judgment completely gone.

I felt a great need to get ready to see the doctor, but I was literally too weak to dry off.  So I sat for a couple of minutes before attempting to stand.

I realized before long that I had been dreaming and decided that I must have put my head down for a moment.  Gradually I became aware of my mother’s voice.  She was on the phone with a 911 operator.

“Please don’t call them now,” I thought, “I can’t possibly be ready before they arrive!”

“Cynthia, stay down,” my mother called, but all I could think of (judgment still gone) was wanting to be ready to meet the ambulance crew.  I defied my mother’s eminently sensible advice and started to move.

“You can wear a robe!” my mother called.

“A robe,” I thought, “Great idea!”  It never occurred to me to wait for my mother to fetch it for me.

Off I lumbered into my room, which is fortunately carpeted and devoid of sharp furniture.  After an immeasurable passage of time, I again became aware that my mind had been transported to an altered state.

I came too, stood, and chuckled at what had transpired.  “I think I passed out,” I declared with a laugh.  A burst of euphoric energy carried me to the top of the staircase, where I needed to sit again, and where the rushing sound started in my ears.  I noted the arrival of the emergency crews as though it were happening in a movie.  All of it ceased to be funny.

I had fainted twice, the first time in the bathroom with my mother downstairs.  She later said that I had sounded like a large sack of potatoes spilling onto the ground.  The second time I fainted was onto the carpet in my room.  My mother saw that happen and said I had collapsed straight down like a rag doll.

Somehow I had managed not to strike anything on the way down.

My energy level returned to normal after about ten days.  I know what to do to prevent a recurrence of the fainting.  I can safely consign that unpleasant episode into the past, but I keep thinking about the First Responders I met that day.

Every face I saw that afternoon was a portrait of concern.  (It is quite an experience to meet a group of strangers and have each of them scrutinize at one with deep concern.)

To a man or woman, everyone was calm, determined, and focused on the tasks at hand.  They worked together like components of a machine.  There were no wasted words.

They were a team completely dedicated for that moment to one job – the preservation of my life.  They do this again and again, day after day, for people they don’t know and the outcomes of whose stories they might never hear.

I wish I could let those First Responders know that everything here turned out OK.  I would like to thank them, all five or six or seven of them – however many there were, from the bottom of my heart.


Quotes for Today

I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er: — MacBeth in MacBeth, Act III, Scene 4

If thou wouldst fain feint with fate, i’ faith, feign a faint. – Anonymous

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.

We’ll Never See September 10th Again.

Towers The Brooklyn Bridge and Lower Manhattan.

Thursday marks the 13th anniversary of the Islamist terrorist attacks that took the lives of 2,977 men, women, and children and at least 11 unborn babies in Manhattan, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.  Currently, more than 19,000 first responders are suffering from illnesses contracted during rescue and recovery operations at the World Trade Center site, and more than 1,400 first-responders have died since 2001.

Every year at the time of the 9/11 anniversary some pop-culture voices – not very loud or prominent, perhaps, but persistent – urge us to “move on” from our grief over the attacks.  I don’t know how that would be possible unless the victims, the planes, and the buildings were miraculously restored to us.  We cannot “move on” from 9/11 any more than we can “move on” from the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the shots fired at Ft. Sumter, or the October Revolution, each of which altered the course of history.

We certainly cannot return to the sleepwalking, innocent, 1990s mindset that I once heard described as, “September 10th.”

My final hours of “September 10th” unfolded in a frenetic whirlwind of professional activity.  At the time I was working for a Madison, Wisconsin, software company that annually welcomes its customers to a four-day User Group Meeting in September.  On the Tuesday every year is the General Session, an elaborate dog-and-pony show at which attendance by all employees is mandatory.  General Session day is the only day of the year on which none of the company’s employees is traveling, which fact turned out to be fortuitous in 2001.

My experience of the events of September 11, 2001, was framed and defined by the company’s idiosyncratic culture.  The firm typically hires people in their 20s – often straight out of college – and works them to exhaustion in a cult-like environment revolving around the company’s genius founder and chief visionary (I’ll call her Judy) who runs the organization with a capricious iron fist.

Having worked in Judy’s field for 15 years, I can say that her company makes outstanding software – probably the best on the market – but treats its employees like children.

The 2001 User Group Meeting had attracted a record number of customers from across the country.  Judy issued a directive that employees were not to drive themselves downtown to the General Session’s site at the Civic Center and that they were instead to ride from the company’s headquarters several miles away on company-provided buses.  Dutifully (sheep-like?), I drove to company headquarters, parked my car, and boarded the bus at about 7 a.m. CDT on September 11, having already stopped at both a dry cleaner’s to pick up my business suit and my office to change clothes.  My day was off to a busy start.

At the Civic Center, I learned from my colleagues that because of the strong customer turnout, we employees had been barred from occupying our customary seats in the orchestra section.  As we milled about and chatted, yelling to be heard in the deafeningly crush outside the mezzanine doors, unbeknownst to any of us an airplane far away in New York slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

We were in our seats for the beginning of the program at 8 a.m. CDT, 15 minutes after the first plane’s impact.  On an impulse (and, subsequently, to my great chagrin), I turned off my cell phone.

The General Session unfolded with a blend of glitz and technical near-perfection within our bubble of naivete.  I believe the theme of that year’s User Group Meeting was related to ancient Rome, so an employee dressed in a toga issued a welcome to open the program.  From there we saw a slick video promoting the company’s newest products, a speech about future technology by the company’s vice president, and (if memory serves) an entertainment segment involving a juggler.  Two or three times cell phones rang in the dark vastness of the customers’ seating area.

Judy made a speech too during the session’s two-plus hours.  Word had passed among the employees that we were all to applaud when Judy made a specific comment about recruitment.  Clapping like a trained seal, and feeling every bit the part, I decided never again to attend a General Session (which promise I have kept).

My first sense that something was amiss came during the “integrated demo,” a highlight of the General Session, during which an army of highly trained sales staff followed a script to demonstrate all of the company’s products’ operating in concert.

What was strange that day was that one of the demo staff made a mistake.  She stumbled over her words and got lost in the script in a manner completely atypical of the highly rehearsed General Session.

Within 90 seconds she was summoned to the stage-left wings, from which Judy and the other General Session presenters emerged as a group.  At the last second, Judy shoved the microphone she was holding into the hands of one her senior staff.  Surprised, but able to roll with the punch, he cleared his throat.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, we have some truly terrible news to report to you.  America has been attacked this morning by terrorists who flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  Both towers of the World Trade Center have collapsed.”

Twilight Zone moment.

Immediately the 30-foot-high screen at the center of the stage showed lower Manhattan with billows of smoke where the twin towers should have been, accompanied by commentary from ABC news anchor Peter Jennings.  It was 10:30 a.m. CDT, nearly two hours after the first plane’s impact.

At that point the General Session was over.  Judy had made sure that the assembled group had seen the video, the future technology speech, her speech, and a specific portion of the integrated demo before letting the rest of us in on the horrific and historic events unfolding around the country.

I later heard that all of the General Session’s staff had been glued to a TV backstage.  The excuse offered for Judy’s failure to inform the audience earlier was that there had been trouble setting up a TV feed into the auditorium.

(This was Madison, Wisconsin, in 2001 – not Nameless, Tennessee, in 1951.  The guys assembled backstage were computer technicians who wrangled cables for a living.  The excuse offered for Judy makes no sense at all.)

Stunned, I watched the screen for two or three minutes before turning on my phone and calling home.

The official word was that those of us without afternoon obligations at the User Group Meeting would be permitted to leave; I would have done so anyway.  Without a car (since I had obeyed Judy’s busing directive like a good little soldier) I set off in my business pumps on the two-mile hike to the University of Wisconsin campus, where I hoped taxis might be found.  I met up with two colleagues en route.  We shared a cab back to company headquarters.  By noon, I was finally home and able to see on television the devastation in lower Manhattan, at the Pentagon, and in a field outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania, but I had been prevented from witnessing any of the morning’s events in real time.

I cannot forgive Judy for deliberately withholding critical information on that day.

I remember from the days and weeks that followed wanting desperately to know what had happened.  Eventually there would be books, films, and articles offering first-person testimonials.  When those became available I read and watched voraciously.

Along the way I found some wonderful resources.  I read Among the Heroes: United Flight 93 and the Passengers and Crew Who Fought Back, Jere Longman’s skillful retelling of the saga of United 93; Report from Ground Zero by Dennis Smith, a compilation of first-person accounts from firefighters and other first-responders who went into the towers on September 11th or worked on the site afterward; Portraits: 9/11/01: The Collected “Portraits of Grief” from The New York Times, the wrenching collection of victims’ New York Times’ obituaries, which drives home the point that quite a few pet dogs were grief-stricken after 9/11 too; and 102 Minutes: The Unforgettable Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers, a minute-by-minute review of events in the towers from the first impact through second collapse, by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn.  Equally informative is 9/11, a stunning film by Jules and Gideon Naudet, who happened to be working on a documentary at a lower-Manhattan fire station on the day of the attacks.  For sheer beauty and depth of feeling, I recommend PBS’s Frontline: Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero

Learning as much as possible about 9/11 was my first means of coping with the horror. This helped, except on the anniversaries.  In 2002, I wished we could just jump directly from September 10th to September 12th and thereby avoid the inevitably painful remembrances.  The 2003 anniversary was similarly agonizing.  To my surprise – since much of life had acquired a normalcy of sorts – so was the anniversary in 2004.

One evening in November of 2004, I started formulating a story about a young man who struggles to come to terms with his best friend’s death on 9/11.  “Gee, it would be great if someone wrote a screenplay about that,” soon became, “Maybe I should write that screenplay.”  So I did.  It was a fascinating experience.  Weaving into the framework of my story a beautiful anecdote I had read in late 2002 about a Ground Zero ironworker who had overcome PTSD, I wrote the middle of the play first.  I began each writing session with the intention of moving the story from A to B and then allowed the characters to determine how that might come about.

By mid-2005, I had completed work on my feature-length screenplay, Into the Arms of Angels.  Here is its logline (or TV Guide-style summary):

Devastated by the death of his closest friend five years earlier in the Twin Tower terrorist attacks, an emotionally crippled Wisconsin dairyman travels to New York City in September of 2006 and through intense suffering reaches an epiphany of healing and insight.

Towers_of_Light_2 The Tower of Lights memorial in lower Manhattan. (Photo:

Writing helped me come to terms with the horrors of 9/11.  After completing my play, I found the anniversaries less painful.


Update: In 2016, I serialized Into the Arms of Angels in 14 parts.  Please click here to read part 1.  Each chapter includes a link to its successor.

I hope you enjoy the play.

Quote for Today

“The number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear.” – former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani






I Was There: Remembering the MS Estonia Twenty Years Later

MS Silja Symphony, Baltic Sea, 28 September 1994

The announcements started at 6 a.m.  First in Swedish.  Then in Finnish.  Then in English.

“Ladies and gentlemen: we have been asked by the government of Estonia to take part in a rescue operation.  We will resume our journey after the rescue operation has completed.”

Having passed the stormy late-September night in a haze of Dramamine offered gratis by my pragmatic ferry line, I assumed that such rescue operations must be routine and drifted back to sleep.

The night’s voyage en route from Stockholm to Helsinki had been anything but restful.  My cabin had heaved and tossed with the heavy seas.  Periodically the engines had shuddered like jackhammers.  The ship had lurched through several sharp turns.  More than once the corridor had echoed with urgent cries and rapid footsteps.  (Was this normal for a stormy night in the Baltic? I didn’t know.)

The mysterious and unsettling announcement was repeated every 15 minutes.  At about 0830, showered and dressed, having finally overcome my drowsiness, I ventured out of my cabin in search of information.  Finding news in English was a challenge; finally, from two Americans in the corridor came word of calamity: another passenger ferry had sunk in the stormy night, and our ship was assisting in the rescue of survivors.

Passing through the ship’s atrium on my way to breakfast I came upon a throng of passengers in rapt attention to a Scandinavian news broadcast on an overhead TV set.  I was unable to learn anything about what was going on without understanding the language, but the collective horror of the assembled group was palpable.

Later in the morning I climbed to the ferry’s upper deck.  The view presented a maritime version of an airport’s holding pattern.  Against a slate-gray stormy sky one could see a flock of ships – two other passenger ferries and at least three cargo ships – circling slowly, with a helicopter occasionally passing among them.  Dotting the water were a few empty inflatable lifeboats and life vests.

We did not know it then, but our ferry had been the third to arrive at the disaster scene, at about 0230.  We stayed with the rescue operation until early afternoon.  The atmosphere onboard was somber and  surreal.  None of the grim-faced passengers raised any complaint as the cafeteria switched to paper plates and plastic flatware and began to ration food.

Eventually we resumed course to Helsinki, arriving nearly twelve hours late.

My return ferry from Helsinki was also delayed by 12 hours, because that vessel had been diverted to a shipyard in order to have its bow doors welded shut. Why, I didn’t know until later.

While I was in Helsinki and during the days I spent in Stockholm and Copenhagen afterwards, I never knew exactly what had transpired in the middle of the Baltic Sea.  The sensation of having been so close to disaster was a constant and unnerving companion during the remaining week or so of my Scandinavian stay.

It wasn’t until my flight home to California that I finally learned, from an article in a Newsweek magazine, about the terrible loss of life that had occurred during my eastbound ferry crossing.  Only when I arrived home in Berkeley did the full psychological weight of the experience bear down on me.  I suppose what I went through was a form of PTSD.  I would awaken in early morning darkness with nerves firing all over the inside my skull, I experienced an overwhelming sadness, and I felt compelled to tell absolutely everyone the story of my experiences.  That went on for two or three weeks.

Even today it is painful to retell the story, because the events of the early hours of September 28, 1994, are so starkly tragic.  (In fact, I can’t read this essay aloud without weeping.)

With 20 years’ hindsight, and with the help of post-incident investigative reports and Wikipedia, here is an account of that night.

Estonia The MS Estonia in 1993, from Wikipedia.

The Baltic Sea was rough, “normally bad” for late September according to one ferry captain, with 13 to 20 foot waves and moderate gale force (34 – 45 mph) winds.

In the complete darkness of 0100, the RORO (Roll-On Roll-Off) auto ferry MS Estonia was nearing the midpoint of its journey, having departed Tallinn, Estonia, at 1900 on the previous evening  and due to arrive in Stockholm, Sweden, at 0930.  On board were 989 people – 803 passengers and 186 crew – representing at least 17 nationalities.

The trouble started with a metallic bang originating near the bow of the ship.  Concerned about bow’s “visor” (which could be raised to expose a loading ramp when the ship was in port) the bridge crew checked indicator lights for the visor and ramp and found nothing amiss.

Bow_Visor_Wikipedia An open bow visor – photo from Wikipedia.

Elsewhere on the bridge, some distance away from the conning station, a surveillance monitor displayed real-time video of the inner cargo ramp.  Had the crew checked the monitor, they would have seen the auto deck taking on water.  Unbeknownst to anyone aboard the ship, the bow visor’s lower lock had broken in a manner undetectable via the ship’s sensors.  (Designed for use in coastal waters, the MS Estonia was not constructed to handle the battering of waves in the open sea.)  Over the ten minutes that followed, passengers and crew alike heard heavy metallic thumping sounds as the visor flapped up and down in the heavy seas.

At 0115, the visor broke free of the ship, leaving the bow completely open.  Immediately the ship listed 30 or 40 degrees to starboard.  Rapidly taking on water, the MS Estonia became unsteerable.

At 0120 the ship’s public address system broadcast a faint alarm message in Estonian.  At 0122 the crew broadcast a “Mayday” but failed to follow international conventions.

By 0130 the MS Estonia had tipped onto her side.  By 0150 she had sunk into the sea and disappeared from other ships’ radar.

Of the 989 people who had boarded the MS Estonia in Tallinn, 852 men, women, and children died in the Baltic’s icy waters.

The commission that investigated the sinking estimated that before the ship sank 310 people had climbed up to the outer decks, and 160 had managed to board the lifeboats.  Survivors described the evacuation as an every-man-for-himself free-for-all that left elderly passengers crying in the staircases because they were unable to climb to the outer decks.  Only seven of the survivors were over the age of 55, and none was under the age of 12.

Most who escaped the sinking ship were underdressed for the 52 degree water and the freezing air.  Only 138 people were rescued alive, and one of those later died in the hospital.

Among the 852 who lost their lives on that icy morning were 501 Swedes, 285 Estonians, 17 Latvians, 11 Russians, 10 Germans, 10 Finns, 18 people representing 11 other nationalities.

To affect the U.S. population as heavily as the MS Estonia’s sinking hit Sweden, a disaster would need to take the lives of 17,000 Americans.  To replicate the sinking’s effect upon Estonia, an incident would need to take the lives of 58,000 Americans.

Est_Memorial The Estonia Memorial in Stockholm.

The sinking of the MS Estonia was the worst maritime disaster to have occurred in the Baltic Sea during peacetime.  Like the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the MS Estonia disaster brought about changes to maritime regulations and safety precautions.  Reading the disaster’s Wikipedia page evokes a reading of A Night to Remember.  As is invariably my experience when I contemplate the tragic saga of the Titanic, there are several junctures in the story of the MS Estonia at which I wish for the ability to reach into the past, fix crucial details, and prevent the disaster.