The Loma Prieta earthquake celebrates its 27th anniversary this week. I was sitting at my desk in The Chronicle newsroom when it struck at 5:04 p.m., working on an article about the proposed leveraged buyout of United Airlines under CEO Stephen Wolf and the airline’s soured labor relations. The shaking began and the screen went dark, and I cursed about losing the article, which was halfway finished.
The shaking scared a reporter sitting next to me, whom we’d just hired from Forbes magazine in New York. Being a native Californian and having experienced other earthquakes (such as the 1971 San Fernando earthquake), I said: “Don’t worry; just get under your desk. It will pass.” But the shaking continued and it had me worried: besides losing power, ceiling tiles began dropping to the floor at our offices at Fifth and Mission Streets downtown.
I began to wonder what it was like outside. After the shaking stopped, we collected ourselves. I checked to make sure that my fiancée — now my wife, Shannon — was OK. She worked down the street at an architecture firm near the Bechtel building. I checked on my parents, who lived in Bodega Bay.
The scene outside was eerie: Few cars were around, and people wandering in the streets. Older buildings with cracks all over were visible, debris had fallen into the streets, and sirens were blaring all around. A big fire had broken out in the Marina district, where Shannon lived. It was chaotic, to be sure.
I thought of my grandmother Clara, who had survived the 1906 S.F. Earthquake and told me stories about it. Her dad disappeared for more than a week, helping with the rescue efforts. She didn’t know whether he had died or not — until he showed up at the house one day a little disheveled.
The Giants were playing in the World Series against Oakland, which probably reduced the number of casualties because traffic on the freeways was lighter than usual. A section of the double-decker Nimitz Freeway in Oakland collapsed.
At the newspaper we began gathering what information we could. It was “gum shoe” and “all hands on deck” reporting, gathering the news on foot, in the streets, not via phones. We dictated anecdotes back to the newsroom and gathered in the newsroom to review our notebooks, largely in the dark, adding another quote or detail to the stories.
We worked into the wee hours of the night, with flashlights, to put out the morning newspapers. We published an edition against difficult odds — on Macs because the in-house Coyote computer network was knocked out. We had a makeshift generator to run the presses. I’ve included a photo from a Facebook page we share called “S.F. Chronicle Alumni and Memories.” It shows the Page One editor Jack Breibart and others gathered around him.
I’ve also included a letter of thanks from the editor Bill German: