San Francisco's 15 Seconds of Fame and Fear
I'll never forgot the gleeful fire in the eye of that gentle bookworm, Arthur Gibson, as he described walking past the burning houses in his search for a bite of supper, hours after the Loma Prieta Earthquake. He would not find food that night; water and power were suspended in the hard-hit Marina district that the world saw aflame.
For many elders, I would learn in the coming days, the passive jeopardy of isolation was no less threatening to their survival, yet less regarded in the annals of disaster preparedness, than the crush of brick walls known as “The Big One.” I’d found out that the near Big One we’d felt in our bones had rumbled for many with its own quiet terror.
Rescue workers came across the cheerful, 91-year-old Gibson two days after he had napped through the city’s biggest temblor in eight decades. It was seven decades since he’d been awakened to duty as a British soldier in World War I.
Gibson’s good-natured calm, taking life as much in his stride as anyone I’ve ever met, might well have rubbed off on the anxious and demanding BBC reporter who’d blustered stoutly through the pressroom at the earthquake relief shelter earlier that day. Had he half of Gibson’s patience, he’d have come up with twice the story his producer sent him out to get.
But before I get to the valor of serenity in the wake of disaster, let’s back up about 15 seconds.
Everyone in the Bay Area that week knows exactly where he held a frozen pose at precisely 5:04 p.m., on Oct. 17, 1989, 20 years and a petrified heartbeat ago. I started having that sea-sick sourness some get the moment before one is sure it’s not only you but everything under you for a mile. By what must have been three seconds in, I was crouching under a desk on the fifth floor or our very elderly office building and beckoning my office mates, “It’s an earthquake get under a desk – get under a desk -- now!”
After what I still can’t quite believe was only 15 seconds, my colleagues and I peered out at one another from our floor-gripping level and knew we'd had survived, but with only a hint, a very serious whisper of the catastrophe that had flattened and burned our City by the Bay in 1906. Somehow, though, 83 years didn't seem much more than a quarter minute away from the dust that enwraps humanity like a shroud of nature.
Soon, the lights and phones blinked out, and we were ordered to evacuate. I would not be able to return to the building and file of articles to edit on their 5¼-inch floppy disks for 10 days, when the structure could be certified as safe.
Fortunately, I live in one of the more temblor-secure sections of San Francisco. Potrero Hill rises on serpentine granite, brittle igneous rock marbled with softer, shock-absorbing veins of often greenish stone. Like everyone else in town, I held my breath as I arrived at my house and reached for the key. The front living room seemed fine, except for a couple of long plaster cracks and a small sculpture that had tipped over on the mantle, but was undamaged.
Cautiously, I worked my way toward the back of the house room by room. In earthquake country one hears stories of nature’s caprices, of houses untouched on one side but cracked apart in another. Everything seemed fine until I opened the door to my 16-year-old daughter's room. Clothes were strewn everywhere, dresser drawers were open with one close to falling. Hours later when Shana made it home and saw her room, she stepped back into the hallway and said -- these were her exact words -- "Well, nothing on the floor that wasn’t there this morning."
That moment of teenage comedy, always my favorite instant in a momentous week, was more than welcome after hours of tension and lack of communication. Telephone lines were overwhelmed, of course, but also, my respect quickly waned for the polluted mainstream of the media.
While I had to admire the fine job that the San Francisco newspapers did in locating working presses and getting editions on the street, the national media predictably went for ratings and sales with distorted and sensationalized coverage. Nothing new there, in the city that bestowed Citizen Hearst on the world. But in this romantic port on the Pacific Rim, the world of populations within our narrow geographic outcropping were often unable to get accurate word about their well being to their far-flung loved ones.
My daughter, for one, could not reach her mother, who lived then in Ireland, for many anxious hours. Later I learned that my haircutter and her brother could not reach her mother in their rural village of Vietnam for more than a week. Her mother had heard – as did the rest of the world, that San Francisco has been "devastated," when actually most of the city had been shaken but remained well intact. While local media proved indispensable, as often happens in disaster’s path, the open lie of national reportage generated a world of unnecessary but commercially viable distress for families at the far reaches of the globe. Words and pictures suggesting universal destruction were false.
The irresponsible national and international media had mostly focused its coverage on the section collapse along the Bay Bridge and the flaming wreckage concentrated within a few blocks in the Marina district along the northern shore of the city. Much of that area is on older, unsecured landfill, which liquifies in a severe quake and turns almost to quicksand for many structures built on it. That's where I headed the next day when the call for volunteers went out.
I headed across town to the main shelter, the Marina Junior High School. Maybe, I thought, I could help a little and, like any reporter, come up with a story or two. I arrived at the press room, which was overburdened and understaffed, and I was quickly deputized with an adhesive Red Cross patch to slap on my shirt.
The air of self-importance around our converted classroom was soon evident. Most reporters and crews were professional and a pleasure to help, but others simply dismayed our volunteer crew. Several volunteers told of a reporter who has stalked a family hoping to find a semblance of respite while waiting to learn whether their home was safe for return or red-tagged for demolition.
The pesky journalist, or should I say, jerk-alist (I never did learn of his media outlet) had been told that press were not welcomed in certain areas designated for families and elders needing to rest and gather strength. After pestering one family with small children, evidently insisting that he was doing them a favor, the reporter in question was ordered to stay clear of them. I was told that he’d then slipped in to the off-limits gymnasium upstairs where families were given cots, blankets a blanket and a square of hardwood to call home. This guy found the family, who had already moved because of him, and harassed them for their story. He was finally banished from the site. That was on the 18th, the first day after the quake.
I returned the following morning more set on assisting where I could and wanting my own stories to emerge from genuine connections with people. The burly BBC reporter, who bounded in about mid-morning, wasn’t as obnoxious as the jerk who’d hassled the family, but hustled into the pressroom insisting that he had to locate a fellow Brit, one who had survived both the quake of ’89 and the London blitz during World War II. “That’s what my producer wants,” he said. “Can you help me?” Although wanting to assist any reporter, I had to stifle a laugh at the assignment’s ludicrous specificity. One could imagine a similar order, perhaps Monty Python style, following a flood: “Find a bearded old man with sons and a pair of Zebras. Get an interview by 3 o’clock GMT.”
Little did the BBC man and I know who would be escorted into the shelter only a short time later. But the broadcaster shrugged off my suggestion that he leave a way to contact him. This was still a few years before the cell-phone era, but landlines were operating then, even in hotel rooms.
As the day wore on, the thought wore into me that I had not wanted my experience of this earthly event to be so jaded. I considered leaving as I took a break from the press area. Strolling along a school corridor, I spotted an acquaintance from my work reporting on issues in aging. “Why don’t you come down and volunteer in the seniors section,” he suggested. “We set some rooms aside for people 70 or older, and media aren’t allowed.” The idea, I must admit, was both appealing and jarring.
Only a day before, my journalistic pride might have set me on edge at the very notion of restricting media access when the public had a right to know. At this juncture, though, I’d had it up to my Red Cross sticker with the abject stupidity to which my profession can so easily stoop. And this was even before Fox News really hit the airwaves.
I headed to the other wing of the school. At a large and sunny classroom, I asked how I could help, appreciated the smiling welcome that greeted me, and got a broom. After doing some sweeping and porting coffee and sandwiches to some of the elders, I asked one of the social workers in charge of our ward what I could do to make myself useful beyond these small tasks. “Talk with them,” she said.
Talk? What could I say?
“Ask them about themselves. They’re holding in so much tension, it’s really reassuring just to have someone care enough to visit with them.”
The irony of it: I’d wanted to escape the cynicism of journalism, and here I was being told that the best deed I could perform was, well, to ask and listen. Really?
Much to my surprise, I discovered how right the social worker had been. Over the next could of hours, I introduced myself and sat with several elders asking the plainest of questions. How are doing? How long of you lived here? Where’s your place? Do you have family in the area? These are not the searching questions of an interview. I didn’t want to trespass on their apprehensions, but remarkably each one in turn opened welcomed my visit and opened up their lives and fears to me. Houses and, even in this affluent part of the city, rent-controlled apartments could be lost.
“At this age,” a retired teacher told me, “Where will I go? I don’t have family any more, and I can’t afford the rents today?”
At one point in the afternoon there was a stir about a new arrival, a very elderly English gentleman, who had been found near his apartment nearly two days after the quake. He’d told the first responders that he’d been a veteran of the Great War. I asked if I could meet him and was point toward one of the makeshift cubicles with a cot and enclosed are for privacy.
Arthur Gibson introduced himself and, on my inquiry, he genially extracted his proof of service, a document that would defibrillate the hearts of the BBC reporter and his producer. It was his latest pension check from the British military service. It was drawn in pounds, about 20 of them, I believe.
Gibson emigrated to the United States in 1926. He held clerical positions throughout his career and spend most of his money and time on books. Every kind of book, he told me, all manner of subjects, novels, mysteries, geography, philosophy, architecture. It didn’t matter. He loved books so much that when the earthquake flooded his floor with him, he was nearly trapped by them and needed some time to shuffle through the leaves and covers to his front door.
His small apartment, knee-deep in tumbled books, was almost as much of a hazard to this independent but bird-boned gentleman, as the lack of potable water. Like many senior men, he kept little in the larder, so by the time rescuers found him in their painstaking, door-to-door search, this quiet personality in his tidy gray suit had not had much to eat or drink in two days.
In the coming days, I learned from emergency authorities that the diffused nature of the Loma Prieta Earthquake, although only second from Big One status, had trapped and endangered elders and many with disabilities in pockets of destruction around the city. Preparations were routinely staged around the idea of rescuing people at major collapse sites with nearby hospitals mustered into action.
Few, however, had thought much of what to do in case of shallower but widespread damage. Vulnerable people were stranded for hours and even days with no access to food or drinkable water, without medications, unable to get to medical help and, in some cases, unable to leave upper floors of their buildings in their wheel chairs without a functioning elevators. Much the same happened in the wake of the September 11 attacks in lower Manhattan and in Hurricane Katrina.
I learned that the longer frail people were isolated after a disaster, often in darkness without electricity or an adequate supply of flashlight, falls were especially hazardous to elders like the bird-boned Arthur Gibson. The reason he and others were not found for two or three days following the 6.9 Richter-scale temblor was simply a lack of personnel. Rescue workers and volunteers needed to search house by house in stricken areas, usually after each had been inspected for safety.
Much has been made of the incompatible communications equipment among the different fire and emergency departments called in from surrounding areas to assist. But I’ve never heard anyone discuss the paucity of people needed to search for the weakest members of the community.
Over the ensuing years, as I covered issues in aging, I learned of many innovative models being developed around the United States to identify at risk elders, such as in flood-prone areas, and organize monitoring and, if need be, rescue systems through friends, family and neighbors. Although I have not revisited this issue with San Francisco authorities, I hope that some of the emergency response and medical directors I interviewed 20 years ago followed up on their enthusiasm for these changes.
Back in 1989, before too many days, life and work were finding their busy routines, again. Deadlines glared and my phone was once more abuzz with calls to and from sources for my quake stories. I never saw Arthur Gibson again, but his sweet calmness and good heart remain with me to this day. I’ll never forget that flare in his eyes when I asked him about the night of the quake, when he walked past the blazing houses as he tried to find an open restaurant.
“When you saw the fires,” I asked, “weren’t you frightened?”
“Oh, no,” said Arthur Gibson. “I found it most exciting.”