I was working as a Registered Nurse at Western Psychiatric Center within Saint Francisco Memorial Hospital in San Francisco the evening of October 17, 1989. At that time, WPC was divided into a locked unit and an open unit. I believe I must have been working on the open unit that evening. I remember being in the open unit’s “day room” where some of the patients were watching a baseball game at Candlestick Park. Suddenly there was a strong jolt that shook everything that lasted only a second. The lights went out briefly and elevator alarms started going off. It was not entirely clear at first what had happened other than it must have been an earthquake.
I believe Saint Francis must have been built on some bedrock as there was very little shaking. Soon we would discover that this had actually been a major earthquake and there had been extensive damage in the rest of San Francisco. Part of the East Bay double decker Nimitz Freeway, the Cypress Street Viaduct on Interstate 880 in West Oakland had collapsed and 42 people were killed. This would come to be known as the “Loma Prieta Earthquake, named after a peak in the Santa Cruz Mountains which was close to the epicenter. Ultimately there would be 63 deaths and 3,757 injuries.
I tried calling Milton and got through on that first call and told him to call my mom and let her know we were alright. He told me there was damage in our flat and the computer monitor we had at the time fell over into a chair. I tried calling again after that but by that time, the lines were jammed and I couldn’t get through.
The patients on the psych unit remained calm. I was asked to evaluate a woman that had come to the Emergency Room from one of the hotels downtown. She had been emotionally upset but was not injured.
I wasn’t sure for a few hours whether I would be allowed to go home at the end of my shift. In emergency situations, nurses and other medical persons are expected to come in to work or stay at work if they are already there. By 11:30 that night, things on Western Psychiatric Center were under control and was using emergency generators for electricity. I was eager to get home to see if Milton was okay.
I had ridden by scooter to work that day and driving home was eerie. All of the street lights and traffic lights were off. There was very little traffic and everyone was driving cautiously. The streets were eerily dark. When I arrived home, Milton was fine but was shaken. We had quite a bit of damage in the Waller Street flat. There were cracks in the plaster in the kitchen and living room but nothing structurally.
We made a bed at the top of the staircase that led from the front door to our second floor flat. We tried to sleep but the aftershocks kept us awake. We were surprised when the phone rang since it had been out previously. The call was from Peter and Allen in England. They had seen footage of the fires in San Francisco’s Marina district which made it appear that all of San Francisco was burning. Milton and I were not even aware of the fires at that time as there was no t.v. and we didn’t have a transistor radio either. After a while, we decided our best option was to throw some clothes in the car and head to Sacramento.
Since the Bay Bridge was closed due to damage, we headed out of The City across the Golden Gate bridge. Milton looked back toward The City as we crossed the bridge and could see The Marina District still burning. We would spend the next couple of nights in Sacramento.