By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 15, 2014
One of the most interesting days of my life occurred when I was a college freshman. I had no inkling of what was about to happen.
This was a long time ago, so there’s plenty I don’t remember about this day. But as I recall, I was lounging in my dorm room feeling sleepy. Dinner time was coming soon. My roommate, Robert was there.
Then the building started to vibrate.
It was 5:04 p.m. Pacific time on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 1989. Stanford University, and the rest of the San Francisco Bay Area, was about to get rocked.
Robert and I both made our way to the doorway. We stood there, trying to keep our balance, fending off the door as it swung back and forth.
I mean “fending off the door” rather literally, by the way. I remember punching and pushing at the door to keep it from hitting Robert and me.
I don’t remember what the earthquake sounded like, but I recall that I was laughing hysterically throughout this terrifying event.
I also recall that the hallway floor was undulating wildly.
At the end of the hall was a small balcony with a glass door. There was so much movement — earth, sky, floor, walls, everything was shaking — that when I looked in that direction, all I could see was a blurry white rectangle shimmying wildly around in the darkness.
It was as if the hall had become a rubber hose being waved violently back and forth by an unseen giant. I felt like a terrified ant desperately hoping to keep myself from being jarred loose and thrown into oblivion.
The Loma Prieta temblor lasted some eight to 15 seconds, according to Wikipedia. (The name comes from the peak near where the center of the quake was located.) But it seemed to me that this extraordinarily strange and frightening event lasted much, much longer than that.
When things returned to their normal state — that is, when the earth and the building stopped moving — Robert and I quickly made our way down the stairs and outside. There was a faded dot (white, I think) painted on the pavement outside of the residence hall; it was a designated emergency assembly point. (That information must have been stenciled on the ground.) Dozens of people congregated around that spot.
Emergency sirens rang out from buildings all around campus. People asked one another if they were OK. We all were.
The resident assistants began counting heads and asking after the whereabouts of people who weren’t present. So and so would normally be on the way back from class right now; my roommate said she was going to the library, the RAs were told of the missing folks.
Although this was mid-October, it was a gorgeous Northern California day — warm, sunny and clear. (It was not unlike the bright weather on a certain deadly day in September 2001.) We milled about in the sunshine, wondering what kinds of aftershocks might come.
One resident, a fellow New Yorker, was a first-year student, like me. But he was slightly older — that exotic creature known as a transfer student. I remember D., as I’ll call him, seeming to me like a stereotypical college student hippie, one who had done some experimenting with marijuana. (I was rather naïve then, although I considered myself to be rather worldly.)
Everyone was hopped up on adrenaline, a normal response when buildings start moving around like cars on a roller coaster. D., however, voiced the forbidden thought that I had been working hard to repress: “I hope we get another one,” he said. “Actually, I hope we get one that’s even bigger!”
“I don’t know,” I replied dubiously. “People might have gotten hurt. We don’t know how bad the damage is yet…”
(All dialogue in recollections of events of years past is guaranteed to be 100 percent authentic; if proven otherwise, I’ll refund your entire purchase price, dearest blog reader!)
I wondered whether the dorm would reopen that night, or whether we’d have to camp out, or whether some dorms might be open but others might be closed. But before too long, we were given clearance to re-enter the dorm.
The building, a rather squat and ugly affair, was made of reinforced concrete, and relatively flexible; nothing of significance in our building was damaged. We went to our rooms and straightened up lamps and books and trashcans and other stuff that had fallen over.
Dinner had begun, or was about to begin, when the earthquake struck. Soon, everyone headed to the dining hall. Ours served four attached residential wings, and it was overflowing with gossip and rumors that sunny evening. The World Series would be canceled; one of the libraries had collapsed; one or another of the bay’s bridges had fallen; San Francisco was in flames; hundreds had died.
In fact, the damage, while severe, was not catastrophic except in a few limited areas. The overall death toll was less than 100, I believe. Classes at Stanford were canceled for a day or two. The World Series was postponed but not canceled. (Oakland swept San Francisco, four games to nothing, in the Battle of the Bay — one of three Fall Classics the A’s played in from 1988 through 1990, but the only one in which they were victorious.) Some roads and bridges had to be repaired and rebuilt. At Stanford, a few of the smaller dorms were closed; a study room in our hall was converted into a bedroom for a pair of the displaced students.
There were some aftershocks, none nearly as strong as the 6.9 magnitude of the initial event. The San Francisco 49ers moved that Sunday’s game to Stanford Stadium, where the team had won Super Bowl XIX against the Miami Dolphins in 1985. I didn’t go to it; at the time, I cared not a fig for pro football. Instead, I attended a desultory 27-24 home loss to Utah (then an out-of-conference foe) on the Saturday before the Niners’ contest. The stadium shivered thanks to an aftershock that took place during the contest — the only thing I remember about the experience besides the cool wet weather I had to endure.
The earthquake stuck with me in a number of ways; for instance, I thought of it whenever the subway passed by the Angelika Film Center as I was watching The Crying Game with my grandmother and cousin.
And I distinctly remember one thing — no, make that two things — that happened on the day after the earthquake. But maybe I’ll save that for my next blog post.