Remembering the Loma Prieta earthquake from The Chronicle newsroom

Publishing Chronicle during Loma Prieta earthquake
Publishing Chronicle during Loma Prieta earthquake

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.

World Series

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:

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Author: jeffpelline

Jeff Pelline is a veteran editor and award-winning journalist - in print and online. He is publisher of Sierra FoodWineArt magazine and its website SierraCulture.com. Jeff covered business and technology for The San Francisco Chronicle for years, was a founding editor and Editor of CNET News, and was Editor of The Union, a 145-year-old newspaper in Grass Valley. Jeff has a bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley and a master's from Northwestern University. His hobbies include sailing and trout fishing.

3 thoughts on “Remembering the Loma Prieta earthquake from The Chronicle newsroom”

  1. My daughter and I rode out the Loma Prieta earthquake braced in our kitchen door frame. As a native Californian who had experienced a lot of quakes over the years, I knew immediately that this was a bad one: the displacement of the floor under our feet was at least a full foot. It felt like we were standing on a waterbed.

    The next day I spoke to one of my colleagues at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. He had been on the first floor of the computer building when the quake struck. That building is anchored on solid bedrock, and the concrete floor is at least twelve inches thick. He got down on his hands and knees on this floor, under a table, and — as he later explained it to me — despite the thickness and tremendous strength of the floor, he could feel the torque and twist of the waves as they passed under his hands. His hands were both moving at the same time, but in different planes.

    This was also the first earthquake I ever heard before it struck our house. I heard a low frequency rumble, like that of a diesel truck engine, seconds before I felt the shaking. Very strange.

  2. Poor George Boardman. He thinks that the San Mateo Times, the little newspaper where he once worked, somehow filled a void and informed Peninsula readers during the Loma Prieta earthquake. ChipOnShoulder.com

  3. Lowell High School, holding open top floor Rm 334 computer lab, I was the teacher and tech.. Myself and about 8 Asian girls, all working to stay ahead in the computer revolution. I immediately called for, “under the tables.” The student next to me started praying. We had just had a huge air conditioner installed in the roof. They guys who cut the hole took a loss, 1 inch rebar every 4 inches, build in 1961 to WWII and nuclear specs, apparently, so should hold well, but still the worst quake ever for me, native San Franciscan. I had a Merc wagon, and started to drive the kids to home downtown, but by the time we got to West Portal, it was hopelessly snarled, so I let them out to go on foot and went home.

    Wife had it much scarier in the Middle Richmond District. She was inside a 12 unit apartment complex, swaying and plaster cracking and falling off walls, she was out the door as soon as it stopped and over to the playground where our 8 year old daughter was freaking out. They held one another for a long time. We spend the next two nights camped out there, waiting for the inspectors to check our building out.

    It’s a large part of why we live up here. Forest fires you can run from, no time in a quake. But having studied Geology, we are one of the few up here who carry earthquake insurance, catastrophic loss for $128 per year.

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