A massive earthquake struck the Bay Area on Tuesday, killing scores of people, most of them in the collapse of a double-decked freeway in Oakland. Death toll estimates ranged from 62 to more than 200.
Hundreds more were injured, scores of buildings were shattered or in flames and a portion of the roadway on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge buckled.
The violent quake, which hit at 5:04 p.m. and lasted about 15 seconds, had a magnitude of 6.9, which made it four times stronger than the powerful Sylmar quake that rocked the northern San Fernando Valley on Feb. 9, 1971, killing 58 and causing more than $1 billion damage.
Seismologists said Tuesday’s earthquake was centered on the historically active San Andreas Fault between Santa Cruz and San Jose, about 50 miles south of San Francisco.
It struck as thousands of fans were crowding into San Francisco’s Candlestick Park for the third game of the 1989 World Series, forcing cancellation of the game.
“It was like somebody slugging a punching bag,” said schoolteacher Flora Churnin, who was at her home in the Silicon Valley town of Sunnyvale when the earthquake hit. “Usually earthquakes pass, but this one went on and on. It just wouldn’t stop. . . . It was very, very bad.”
Police said a mile-long stretch of the upper roadway on Interstate 880 in Oakland collapsed onto the lower roadway, sandwiching 100 to 200 vehicles--and about twice that many motorists--in between.
The state Department of Emergency Services said at least 200 were dead in the freeway collapse, with scores more suffering serious injuries. However, Oakland officials disputed that figure, saying only that more than 50 people had died in the collapse. “They still don’t have an accurate count of the fatalities,” Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy said late Tuesday night. “It’s going to be very bad news.”
An apartment building covering an entire city block cracked and caught fire in San Francisco’s Marina District, killing three. The flames spread unchecked and the entire structure eventually collapsed in embers, with several nearby buildings threatened. Other fires burned unchecked in Berkeley, across the Bay.
At the recently renovated San Francisco International Airport, ceilings collapsed and tumbled into crowded passengers areas. Flights were halted and officials ordered many of the passenger areas evacuated. The area’s two other major airports, in Oakland and San Jose, were also closed as officials checked for damage.
The early death toll included the 50 or more who died in their cars when a section of Interstate 880 collapsed, five killed in the collapse of a four-story building in San Francisco, one killed in a car that fell from the roadway on the Bay Bridge, three who died in a fire in the city’s Marina district, two killed in the collapse of a portion of the City Garden Mall in Santa Cruz and one who died of a heart attack in San Jose.
Commuters, stranded in the chaos that followed the quake, were left to wonder about the fate of loved ones at home.
“Answer! Damn it!” Jeff Darling, 28, shouted into a San Francisco pay phone as he tried to reach his family across the bay in Berkeley.
Thirty seconds later, as the phone continued to ring unanswered, he dropped the receiver and began to cry.
“I’ve got to know. I’ve got to know,” he said. “What happened?”
The earthquake, which was felt as far as 200 miles away, knocked out electrical power, television broadcasts and telephonic communications across hundreds of miles.
Network broadcasters monitoring World Series pregame activities from other cities saw the game go off the air and spread word of the disaster to the millions across the nation preparing to watch the game at Candlestick on television.
Several spectators at the ballpark were injured. The game was called, and officials ordered the stadium evacuated. In the hasty exit, players abandoned the stadium in their uniforms.
In the collapse of a 50-foot section of the upper roadway on the Bay Bridge, one car toppled into the gap.
With the bridge blocked and subway service under the bay halted until damage to the Bay Area Rapid Transit system could be assessed, ferries reportedly were offering free rides to some of the stranded commuters.
Traffic was paralyzed throughout the area, with a number of major roadways in addition to I-880 and the Bay Bridge suffering major damage.
Elevated portions of U.S. 101, one of the main arteries to the south, buckled in several places near San Francisco International Airport and in the city proper, the state Department of Emergency Services reported. The Embarcadero Freeway along the city’s waterfront was closed because some portions had collapsed. Rockslides closed California 17 between San Cruz and San Jose.
Ambulances, their sirens screaming, attempted to race through gridlocked streets toward downtown San Francisco. Many commuters left their cars in parking lots and tried to go home by foot. Market Street was filled with people as aftershocks continued.
Lesley Kaplan, who lives about four blocks south of Market Street, said there were people “milling everywhere. There’s 40 to 60 people on every block. There’s no traffic lights. There are a lot of car accidents. Lots of glass on the streets.”
In the Marina District, bus drivers stepped away from their vehicles to serve as temporary traffic cops, and few problems with disruptive drivers were reported.
Several major buildings collapsed near the heart of the city. Among them was a four-story structure near the Civic Center that fell on several cars, killing at least five, according to fire officials.
At the nearby federal building, heavily damaged in the quake, Marcus Williams said he feared being buried alive.
“As I ran down the stairs, people were screaming,” Williams said. “This was the worst one I ever felt.”
“We all thought we were going to die,” said Kim Gordon, an insurance company employee who was riding San Francisco’s subway system.
She said that when her train arrived at the next station, the passengers were let out but had to grope their way to the surface in the dark.
People lined up 20 deep at some pay phones, trying to reach their families. Tempers flared occasionally, but for the most part, those in line waited patiently to take their turns.
But not everyone responded well to the emergency.
There were scattered reports of looting, and a municipal bus driver said rampaging youths from the Sunnydale public housing project in Visitation Valley, near Candlestick Park, stormed aboard his bus, “snatched purses and roughed up passengers,” at least one of whom was seriously injured.
“It was terrifying,” the bus driver said.
At San Francisco General Hospital, three people clustered in the emergency room fingering rosary beads. “I’m scared to go home,” said Estelita Aganon. “There’s so much dark out there.”
“Tonight is a hell that we never expected,” said Marvin J. Phillips, a jewelry wholesaler in the city’s Tenderloin District.
Tim Jenson, 7, who lives with his family in Oakland, whimpered as his mother led him across San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza.
“We’ll get there. We’ll get there,” Crystal Jenson reassured the boy, explaining to a passer-by that she was looking for a hotel room where the two of them could spend the night.
“I’m just thinking about my house, my dog, all my things,” she said. “I know they’ll be O.K. I want to believe it.”
The city’s mayor, Art Agnos, said he had asked the Army at the Presidio to make extra military police and other security personnel available so they could team up with San Francisco police for traffic duty and patrol to keep order.
The California National Guard dispatched at least one military police brigade, a medical evacuation helicopter and communications equipment to San Francisco.
“You hear police sirens every five minutes,” Kaplan said. “I’ve never seen this city so busy . . . People are trying to buy food that doesn’t spoil. Stores are letting people in two at a time to avoid looting.”
But the chaotic scene was not replayed everywhere in the city.
At the Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill, guest Robert E. Wood, 47, described a scene almost surreal in its calm. Hotel guests milled around the darkened lobby, eating cold cuts from a buffet prepared by the hotel.
“A few people were quite stunned by the whole thing,” he said. “One lady was walking around the lobby in her hotel bathrobe. . . . People were in various stages--from three-piece suits to shorts to the lady in the bathrobe.”
The San Francisco Chronicle, its regular and emergency power systems disabled, was attempting to print a special limited edition of the paper at its plant in the East Bay area. Oakland was also hit hard, with piles of bricks from shattered buildings dumped into the streets and shattered glass littering the sidewalks.
Hours after the quake, much of the city was still without electricity, and police were kept busy dispersing the groups of youths that kept congregating on the darkened streets.
Damage and injuries in the communities surrounding the epicenter were said to be extensive, with people trapped in damaged buildings in Hollister and San Jose. Police reported some looting in San Jose, but further details were not available, due to the damaged communications systems.
In Santa Cruz County, Office of Emergency Services public information officer Dinah Phillips said two persons were confirmed dead in the collapse of buildings at the mall. She said a third person may also have died.
The Moss Landing Power Plant was knocked out of service, cutting off electricity to the entire area, Phillips said, but water lines and major gas lines appeared to be functioning.
Santa Cruz requested 40 additional fire engines from the state to combat structure and wild lands fires throughout the county.
“Our firemen have been doing one hell of a job,” she said, “but I’m sure they feel overwhelmed.
Phillips said sheriff’s deputies were patrolling the Santa Cruz area because of unconfirmed reports of looting.
A Hayward man, Steve Stevenson, said he and his wife, Christie, tried to run out of their front door when the quake hit, but “it was impossible to run . . .
“We held on to a tree in the front yard and watched the water in the swimming poor come out in three-foot waves,” Steve Stevenson said.
In Sacramento, Gov. George Deukmejian’s press secretary, Kevin Brett, said the governor had been awakened in Frankfurt, West Germany, where he had gone on a trade mission, at about 1:15 a.m. Frankfurt time. Deukmejian immediately cut short hit trip and headed home in an Air Force plane supplied by President Bush.
Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy, acting as governor in Deukmejian’s absence, said in San Francisco that he would declare a state of emergency in the San Francisco Bay area. He estimated that property damage would exceed $1 billion.
Sen. Pete Wilson and his wife Gayle, who rode out the quake at the Clift Hotel in San Francisco, canceled plans to return to Washington. The California Republican said he would stay to “expedite whatever federal assistance” might be rendered.
Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp activated the state Department of Justice’s “emergency operations command” and headed to Sacramento for an expected meeting of state leaders sometime today.
President Bush ordered Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner to fly immediately to the Bay Area to assess the damage.
“The President stands ready to provide support as necessary,” said White house spokesman William Harlow. “He has instructed his staff to be as supportive as possible.”
The historic San Francisco earthquake of 1906 was estimated later by seismologists to have reached a magnitude of 8.3. By that scale, each number represents a 10-fold increase in magnitude--meaning that the earlier quake was considerably more than 10 times stronger than Tuesday’s.
The 1906 quake devastated the city. In the three days that followed that quake, fires destroyed 490 blocks within a four-square-mile area near the financial district. Five hundred were killed, thousands were injured and more than 28,000 buildings ultimately were lost. In 1906 dollars, damage was estimated at $400 million.
This story was written by Times staff writers Eric Malnic and Cathleen Decker based on reporting by Dan Morain, Philip Hager and Victor Zonana and others in the Bay Area.