Tom McDonald-Sawyer: A world turned upside down: 25th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake

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It was 25 years ago on Oct. 17, 1989 — a Tuesday.

I got out of work at 5 p.m. My car was being repaired so I ran to the bus stop to catch a ride to Santa Cruz where I’d have to transfer to get a bus home.

I was sitting on the bus bench, ready to take out my pass when I felt the Earth rumble through my feet. A sharper shock jolted me upright. I spun around and grabbed the bench. A deafening roar assaulted my ears.

The trees and the telephone poles around me were doing a frantic dervish dance, the power lines whipping around like jump ropes as the poles dipped back and forth. A small house nearby was jiggling like a plate of Jell-O that had been thrust upon a table.

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Directly in front of me was a parking lot. Little four- to six-inch ripples were scurrying toward me in the asphalt. They were making the cars rock so violently I expected to see them leap into the air.

I couldn’t stop staring. Terror seized me. I thought, “This is the big one!” I fully expected the earth to open up and swallow me whole.

Officials later said the quake lasted about 15 seconds. It felt like an hour.

Shortly after that, the bus arrived. The door opened and the driver smiled out, “You’re still alive!” My legs were like rubber, but I climbed aboard.

The driver mentioned his radio was out and drove on. Everyone that he stopped to pick up had wide-open eyes. Some were totally silent while others related brief impressions of their experience.

There didn’t appear to be a lot of damage at first. There was an ambulance at a supermarket. The EMT was reassuring someone laying on the sidewalk. Everything was quiet.

The bus reached the edge of Santa Cruz proper and the full magnitude of the quake became evident.

Every plate glass window in an abandoned shoe store was shattered. A doughnut shop roof had collapsed and its windows broken. A young man came out of the parking lot, blood on his hand and shirt.

As the bus approached downtown, I stared in deepening horror at what up to 20 minutes before had been the Santa Cruz Roasting Company. A policeman moved bricks from where the front door had stood. Some days later the body of an employee was found. She had died instantly.

Rubble and broken glass were everywhere. Civilians were directing traffic. The power had been cut. Parking lots were empty.

The Metro Center was jammed full of buses and people. The doors opened into a dead silence as we slowly filed out of the bus. Most people were just sitting. Some milled around. They didn’t seem to know where they were going. There was an oppressive silence.

I would have to find my own way home, several miles away. Anxiety threatened to overwhelm me. Where was my family? Were they all right?

I looked down the street. Massive sections of buildings were strewn on the ground. Someone’s desk in a second story office was clearly visible. A policeman taped off the area while telling everyone to disperse. I turned and walked in the opposite direction.

I tried the first payphone I came to. Dead. I turned to see a thick column of black smoke reaching skyward. I thought, “I gotta get home.”

I headed toward a bridge, picking my way through the glass-blanketed sidewalk. A policeman had the road blocked with his cruiser and set flares next to it. I crossed over using the walkway.

Damage seemed to be lighter as I went on. A restaurant was in disarray and had broken glass. I noted spots of blood on the sidewalk coming from the building. I followed them until they veered off toward the hospital.

A little farther on I heard a car horn blow and as I turned I saw a friend who I used to work with. I literally jumped into his car and asked for a ride home. He was going to pick up his daughter from the babysitter. I told him to go to check on her first but he reiterated he felt she was OK.

When we turned up my driveway, my wife was standing outside with our kids and the neighbor and her kids. I tried but couldn’t fully express my thanks to my friend for bringing me safely home.

We retrieved our camping gear, food and supplies, and set up a bivouac on a flat, open, sandy area. Later, we started a campfire and ate a small meal. We turned on the radio and found a station transmitting the emergency broadcast system. The irritatingly familiar squeal and honks of a test were replaced with, “Expect to survive on your own for the next three days. All emergency services are busy.”

Everyone who was there has a story to tell of that day — stories of survival and reactions to the world falling apart before their eyes.

Tom McDonald-Sawyer now lives in Auburn. At the time of the earthquake, he lived a short distance from the epicenter in Aptos, Calif., with his wife and children.

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