October 17, 1989 (Part 2)

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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 2 (of 4-part series), scientists reflect on what they were feeling after the earthquake struck and their thoughts about what was yet to come.



Date Taken:

Length: 00:03:47

Location Taken: San Francisco, CA, US

Video Credits

Paul Laustsen, Susan Garcia


The thing I remember the most about the earthquake itself was after I walked out of the Burger King the power poles/light poles on University Avenue were swaying because of the long-period ground motion. And you had no sense of when the earthquake ended because those poles continued to oscillate until, finally, they were damped out. And the other thing that struck me was some people were pretty emotional. There were people crying on University Avenue. It was definitely exciting. And then all the lights went out and it was a little bit frightening because I didn’t have a window and it was really dark in my office. But I was very proud of myself because I had put a flashlight in a drawer of my desk exactly for this reason. And I knew exactly where it was so I was able to find it. I was thinking professionally because it started out as fairly minor, and I’ve felt minor earthquakes before. And I was calculating in my head, “Ok, I feel the p-wave and I should get an s-wave soon, and I wonder how far this is away.” And that is one of the things I always do. That way the difference in time I can estimate, roughly, how far away is this earthquake. But then as it continued to grow I started to think more on a personal basis, like, “Am I going to survive this?” when I saw the doorway beginning to flex. Right away we realized it was an earthquake, and we didn’t know where it was or how big it was, but we all thought it was in the 6-plus range. I was thinking East Bay. But when we got back to the Survey everyone was gathering on the south lawn, again. And that’s when the rumors started to come in -- that, or some information started to come in -- that there was real damage around the Bay Area. Well, actually, when I felt the p-wave come in and the house really move, I knew it was a large earthquake. And from the direction of movement, I knew it had occurred to the south. I certainly didn’t know what fault it was on. And then once on television they began to show damage from all around and suddenly hundreds of people were dead, the Cypress structure [Cypress Street Viaduct, Nimitz Freeway in Oakland, CA] had collapsed, fires were starting. . . . They made it sound as if the entire area was destroyed, and that’s what went out to the rest of the world. That’s what our parents in Florida heard and so they were crazy. We used that big ol’ fat cell phone in the car to get through to our parents and say, “Hey, we’re good. We’re all right.”