BAY AREA QUAKE : COVERAGE: TELEVISION : Networks Scrambled to Report Disaster


The ABC television network had just gone on the air with pregame World Series coverage Tuesday and an interview alongside the Candlestick Park infield was under way when, suddenly, the power failed.

Cable’s ESPN was in the midst of showing a women’s body-building competition from New Jersey. Suddenly the sports channel cut away from the scene of oiled bodies and flexed muscles for a special report. In front of Candlestick Park, ESPN announcer Bob Ley, looking a bit shaken, reported an earthquake had just struck the San Francisco area.

Seconds after the earthquake hit, at 5:04 p.m., sports reporters suddenly found themselves covering a huge hard-news story.

“It was a horrible moment,” ABC play-by-play announcer Al Michaels later told Ted Koppel on the air, describing the quake. “It was a case of me feeling we were going backwards. We went out on the mezzanine and the fans were talking baseball and will the game be resumed? They had no sense, of course, of the magnitude of this.”


Indeed, because the initial TV reports emanated from Candlestick Park, viewers were unintentionally misled about the scope of the destruction in San Francisco. One of the first live reports on KABC-TV Channel 7 from the parking lot of the baseball stadium featured fans who were joking about the shaker and still looking forward to the Giants-A’s game, which was later canceled.

Within half an hour, however, the ABC network was transmitting dramatic aerial footage of a collapsed section of the upper roadway of the Bay Bridge. The Goodyear blimp later provided shots of damage in the city, and ABC showed a fire raging near Fisherman’s Warf.

ESPN’s Ley, Chris Berman and Chris Myers did fan and ballplayer interviews at the stadium and showed Oakland A’s catcher Terry Steinbach, walking with his arm around a woman, apparently his wife, across the stadium as the third game of the World Series was called. The powerful picture emphasized the importance of family over baseball.

In Los Angeles, KCBS-TV Channel 2 and KNBC Channel 4 were in the midst of local newscasts when the 6.9 temblor hit, and the stations began reporting details as they became known. But they were hampered in getting early pictures of the story because the quake knocked out power at their sister stations in San Francisco. KCBS finally picked up KPIX-TV’s coverage at 5:37 p.m., but KNBC did not get anything from KRON-TV for about an hour and was forced to continue with regular news features while the other stations were beginning to show the widespread damage.

“They (KRON) were off. We couldn’t get a picture,” a KNBC spokeswoman said.

Cable News Network was also delayed in getting footage because the power went out in its San Francisco bureau. It filled in with audio reports until 5:46 p.m., when it began airing the first in a series of stunning scenes of fires and buckled roadways provided by several Bay-Area stations.

Dan Rather anchored special reports on CBS from 6:30 p.m. until 8 p.m., then again from 8:30 to 9 p.m. At about 7:35, he showed viewers what was described as someone’s amateur video footage, and what was perhaps the most dramatic piece of footage of the night. The video, taken from a car on the upper portion of the Bay Bridge, showed viewers another car suddenly plunge out of view into a crevice where the bridge had given way. Then its hood popped back into sight.

The same footage later was shown on other channels, and ABC carried an interview with the couple who took it.


As the evening wore on, all three networks and CNN provided the nation with dramatic scenes of collapsed and damaged buildings. One poignant piece of videotape showed two residents ineffectively throwing pails of water on a raging fire.

The networks showed President Bush at a White House dinner with Chief of Staff John Sununu. Sununu told reporters that California’s lieutenant governor had told the White House that at least 40 people were killed in the quake.

CNN broadcast an interview with a survivor who was on the Bay Bridge. The woman, fear still clear in her voice, said that she was on a bus on the bridge. “The bus started shaking back and forth,” she said. “People were running between the cars, people saying the bridge was collapsing. There was panic on the bridge.”

At 9 p.m., the ABC network broadcast a live feed from KGO-TV in San Francisco, which included coverage of rescue workers trying to pull a 7-year-old boy out of the back seat of a car that was crushed when a freeway collapsed. His parents had been in the front seat and were killed.


CNN viewers saw one woman interviewed in front of the building she had seen collapse.

“It lasted for about eight seconds, and four seconds into it we turned around . . . and we saw it collapse. It was so bizarre, just like a quiet crunch, it just crunched down,” she said. “All of this damage that is happening, it just quietly crunched. It was so eerie. The woman who ran out of this apartment said she heard someone scream from down below.”

Reporting for this story was done by Lee Margulies in Los Angeles and John Goldman in New York. Times staff writer Jeff Kaye also contributed in Los Angeles.