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Marking 25 Years After The Loma Prieta Earthquake

Paul Sakuma / AP

Paul Sakuma / AP

Shortly after 5 p.m. on Oct. 17, 1989, a 6.9-magnitude quake hit the San Franciso Bay Area. Sixty-three people died, thousands were injured and the temblor caused $6 billion in property damages, according to the USGS.

CapRadio's Contributing Arts Reporter and Theater Critic Jeff Hudson was working at an office for the local Watsonville newspaper when he felt the ground move. When the trembling stopped, he walked 1.1 miles back to his house, leaving his car at work because the streets were jammed. The phone line was dead and he couldn't reach his wife, who was five months pregnant. On his walk home through downtown Watsonville he saw collapsed buildings and one house was engulfed in flames. A gas line ruptured and triggered the blaze, he said.

Watsonville, located near the epicenter, was one of the hardest hit areas along with Santa Cruz, Los Gatos, Oakland and San Francisco.

"There was damage and broken glass all over," says Hudson. "I was very relieved to find that my wife was not seriously hurt. We did not know at that point that she was carrying twins."

Dealing with the aftermath of the earthquake was just as harrowing, he says.

Water was scarce and parts of his house were unusable.

"I ended up standing in a line that formed at a water truck in the downtown Watsonville city plaza, because we didn't have any water left at home (Our 8-gallon-supply ran out pretty fast)," he says. "And then there were rooms we could not use in chilly, rainy November, December, January, February because we had plywood covering a hole in the side of the house where the brick chimneys used to be."

Today, Hudson says he's vigilant about being prepared for another big earthquake, and hopes that others are too.

"More people should give thought to storing drinking water in their garage, arranging their stuff at home in ways that will minimize injuries and property damage," he says.

-Capital Public Radio Staff

Where were you when the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake hit? Tell us in the comments below or send them to community@capradio.org.


CapRadio's Contributing Arts Reporter and Theatre Critic Jeff Hudson shared his pictures showing the the aftermath of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.

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Jeff Hudson cleans up the kitchen in his Watsonville home after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. He said, "The fridge door popped open during the quake and so did several kitchen cabinets, and various bottles (milk, wine, olive oil, etc.) hit the floor and shattered, along with bananas and the coffeemaker from the countertop." Photo by: K.K. Hudson-Bates

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Hudson said: The earthquake caused the fireplace in the den to collapse. Photo by: K.K. Hudson-Bates.

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 Jeff Hudson: Two photos from the upstairs library, which has built-in bookshelves on all four walls. The books came tumbling off the shelves, the desk drawers slid out to full extension, and the weight of the fully-loaded drawers caused the desk to tilt. Fortunately, no one was in the library during the earthquake.  Photo by: K.K. Hudson-Bates

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Jeff Hudson: The house (built in 1868 on redwood blocks) needed a new foundation after the earthquake. Photo by: K.K. Hudson-Bates


Cody Drabble, morning news producer, interviewed his father, David Drabble, who was working on a San Francisco ambulance the day of the earthquake. David Drabble recently retired after three decades as a paramedic in San Francisco. The Loma Prieta earthquake is an unforgettable moment for anyone working emergency services that day.



My memories of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake are a little fuzzy because I was four years old, so here’s what I do remember:

The earthquake hit at the end of the day, right before the parents normally came to pick us up from preschool. I was playing freeze tag and riding a tricycle in the courtyard at St. Nicholas Preschool in Diamond Heights. Suddenly, all the adults started running around in a panic. I remember wondering why so many grownups were so freaked out, because I had never seen grownups scream and cry before. One of the men working at the school picked up two kids, one under each arm, and got them away from a huge floor to ceiling window. The window didn’t break, but he reacted quickly. Nobody was hurt at my school, fortunately, though a lot of things shook down to the ground. I don’t remember the physical sensation of the ground shaking as well as I remember the emotional reaction to seeing adults lose their cool. Soon after the quake, I was picked up by my best friend’s mom, and I went to their house around the corner from our house in the Sunset District to wait for my parents to come get me.

To fill out the rest of the story I called my dad, David Drabble, a San Francisco paramedic:

“I was working a 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. shift that day with my partner Kim.

Before the earthquake hit, we were in the Tenderloin in the back of the ambulance caring for a patient who had been stabbed in the arm. Sometimes, especially in the Tenderloin, people would shake the ambulance if they knew their friend was inside, like, ‘Hey, let our friend out.’ So when I felt the ambulance shake, at first I thought there were people rocking it.

The rig started rocking back and forth, and I opened the back of the Ambulance onto Jones Street, and everything was shaking.

The years and years of dust and dirt that had accumulated in the narrow cracks between the buildings was shooting out. All of the dust was shooting out in vertical lines from the cracks between the tall buildings like a wall of water.

It was very dramatic.

I turned to my partner Kim and said, ‘Uhhh, we’re not getting off work on time tonight.’

So we took the patient back to SF General Hospital to get ourselves back in service.We went back out onto the street and ended up in the Marina.

We had to crawl into collapsed buildings looking for victims trapped inside. I could walk from the sidewalk and hop up onto the roof of a collapsed building, crawl through what was left of a window, and look for people in the rubble.

At the same time, behind me, an entire block was on fire. At one point, I was looking at the collapsed building in front of me, there was the block on fire behind me, and I looked down the street and saw that a gas main had broken. The air was wavy like a mirage with the gas from the broken main.

I thought, this is it. We’re going to die in a huge explosion.

I think someone from PG&E shut the gas main down in time, and we just got lucky it didn’t explode. It hadn’t reached the ‘lower explosive limit’ – the right mixture of gas and oxygen and ignition sources – to light up.

We just got lucky.

Meanwhile, Anne Riley [our family friend] picked you up from school because it was her turn that day on kids carpool duty. She was in the parking lot of the Diamond Heights Safeway when the earthquake hit. She went straight to St. Nick’s and picked you up with her kids Nick and Allison and took you home right away.

Eventually, I got clearance to go home to check on my family, so I drove code 3 [with lights and sirens] to the Sunset District because I had no idea if my family was okay.

I got home, went upstairs, and our house was empty.

I went around the corner to the Rileys’ house and saw that everyone was huddled in the living room. When I saw everyone was safe, I went back out.

I worked until about 4 a.m. that morning.

I got home, slept for about an hour or two, and then had to go back to work for the next shift.

The next day after the earthquake was very interesting. There were a lot of shell-shocked people. We spent most of the day getting non-ambulatory people and elderly people stuck in buildings without working elevators. There were a lot of people with oxygen machines running on battery backup that needed to get to a hospital. The rest of it was dealing with a lot of bumps and bruises and breaks and strains.”


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