Loma Prieta Memories

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Today marks the 30th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake. I thought I would share my story of that day here.

On October 17, 1989, life was going pretty well for me. I was engaged to be married, and I had a good-paying job at Apple, working in a group we had concocted called Worldwide Channel Systems. Although we didn’t know it at the time, we were basically plotting out the strategy for what would later be possible via the commercial Internet, but we were, regrettably, about six years too early.

One of my meetings that day was with a couple of folks from MacUser magazine, editor John Anderson and Derek van Alstyne, his young protege. We got together to discuss Apple’s online community, eWorld. I had them sign the customary non-disclosure forms, which I slipped into my desk once they were signed, and I walked them through the system. We met for about an hour, and they said they had to get to a meeting in San Francisco, so I shook hands with them both and saw them to the door.

In spite of this myth that everyone in Silicon Valley lives at work constantly and has crazy hours, the people at Apple – – and certainly those of us in marketing – -were really 9-to-5 types, so a little after 5, I headed out to my car and started the short trip back to my townhouse.

As I was crossing above the 280 freeway (pictured below), I was hit by an unprecedented sensation: it was as if all four of my car tires turned into the shape of footballs. That is the best description I can possibly give. Not knowing what was going on, I pressed the brakes and stopped my car. I then gazed to the right, at the hundreds and hundreds of cars on 280, and every single one of them had stopped.

the arrow marks where I hit the brakes and looked over the freeway.

To this day, I am absolutely amazed how no one hit anyone else. Even though these thousands of drivers all had different brains, personalities, dispositions, and driving styles, every single one of us stopped in the exact same way, within the same amount of time, and roughly the same temperament. Had I predicted what would have taken place, I would have assumed almost every car would have smashed into someone else, but they didn’t.

the drivers in Oakland were not so fortunate, and never had a chance

After I collected my wits, I continued on my journey home, which was just a few blocks away. I don’t quite remember, but I think the electricity might have been out, but I had a battery-operated radio, so I turned that on and started listening to the reports.

In a classic example of how misinformation can spread early in an emergency, the radio said that the Bay Bridge had “collapsed”. Well, it did, sort of, but it was actually just a specific section of the bridge. Strictly speaking, about 0.5% of the bridge had “collapsed”, but when I heard the report, I envisioned the entirety of the Bay Bridge had plunged into the chilly SF Bay below. Here is some amazing footage from that day:

Unknown to me at the time, the two gentlemen I had said good-bye to just a few hours earlier were already dead. They had gone to San Francisco for a meeting, as they told me, and as they were approaching the entrance, the earthquake hit. The brick facade of the building was shaken to pieces, and it all came down upon them both. They were killed almost instantly.

After I found out about their deaths, I pulled out the NDAs they had signed and glanced at their signatures. I got a chill thinking how that was almost certainly the last thing either of them had written in their entire lives. It also occurred to me that I was probably the last person they had seen. It was a terribly eerie feeling.

I was so young back then, but now, thirty years later, I don’t feel a day older. But we can never know for sure what the next hour holds. It all can change in the blink of an eye.

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