October 17, 1989 (Part 1)

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Detailed Description

On October 17, 1989, at 5:04 pm a magnitude M6.9 earthquake struck near Loma Prieta, California. It was a tragic reminder of the destructive power of earthquakes. However, it was also a watershed moment in seismic research. 30 years later, we revisit the earthquake through the eyes of the scientists who experienced it. And studied it. These are their stories. In Part 1 (of 4-part series), scientists reminisce about where they were when the earthquake first hit and what they saw happening around them in the moments after.



Date Taken:

Length: 00:04:47

Location Taken: San Francisco, CA, US

Video Credits

Paul Laustsen, Susan Garcia


When the earthquake occurred, I was on the second floor of what we refer to as building 8. And I was in someone’s office, and it started to shake. And I distinctly remember having this thought as we had published a paper several years earlier about the seismic potential of the Calaveras Fault. And [in that paper] we went out on a limb and said, “Here is where the next earthquake is likely to be.” So fast forward to 1989… It starts shaking and I thought for a moment, “Woah, maybe we were right!” Then, it started to really shake, and I thought, “We had only forecasted a magnitude 5.5, that should be over in about 10 seconds.” This was a whole other creature. At which point I started to think like, “Maybe I should forget about papers and seismology and get safe.” So I got under a doorway. So at the time of the earthquake I was in Walnut Creek, CA, about 50 miles from Menlo Park. I’m a big A’s fan, and I had gone home early to watch the third game of the World Series. I got myself ready. I poured a big glass of a nice zinfandel. I put it on the kitchen table and sat back with my feet up. Then suddenly the house just went “boom.” And I felt the first P-wave coming from that earthquake. Then the whole house started to move. And I sort of said, “Earth…” And my wife was upstairs, and she said, “…quake.” Within 15-20 seconds the TV screen had gone all fuzzy and then they came on and said, “We’re having an earthquake.” And the game was called off. So that’s the way it all started for me. I was in my office at USGS, and I at that time had an internal office. I had just started working here a few months earlier. I had an internal office, so there was no window. And I remember all the lights went out, and I dove under my desk. And initially I really thought it was the Parkfield earthquake because at that time we were all waiting for the Parkfield earthquake to happen. The Parkfield earthquake experiment was in full swing and I was pretty sure this was it. And then the shaking got stronger and I realized that it couldn’t be…couldn’t be the Parkfield earthquake. I was playing tennis with a colleague from here [USGS]. We were about halfway through a set, and all of the sudden the trees started to make noise like birds were taking off from it. And then my feet started to move about a foot, a foot and a half, and then it stopped. It only went on for four or five seconds, and then it stopped. And then my colleague looked at me and said, “You know we’re not going to be able to play tennis again for at least a month, so we might as well finish this.” So we finished it, and then we walked, rode our bikes back to the Survey. And everyone was sort of gathering on the lawn, no one was going into the building. I stopped at Len Rhode’s Burger King on University Avenue. I had to grab a hamburger because that was going to be my dinner that night. And while I was standing in line after I placed my order, I saw my order coming out and Loma Prieta rolled through. And the power went off, everybody was running out of the restaurant, and I realized that if I didn’t grab that hamburger I wasn’t going to have dinner.