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Nevius: 'Woooooooooo!': Quake memories from Candlestick's upper deck still strong

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Not to brag, but when the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake struck, I was the voice of reason.

A group of us media types were in the overflow, outdoor press box at Candlestick Park. We were in the upper deck, behind home plate, waiting for the start of Game 3 of the World Series. When the rumbling began, I offered some reassurance to the out-of-town reporter sitting next to me.

“That’s just the jets from the flyover,” I told him confidently.

I assume he’ll never believe anything I say for the rest of my life. The tipoff was that it didn’t stop. We talk about “shaking” in an earthquake, but this was more like a shuddering. And it went on and on. The quake only lasted 17 seconds, but that’s a long time when you are wondering if your world is going to collapse.

I distinctly remember thinking, “That’s enough!” I have no idea to whom I was directing that thought.

What people forget is that when the rattling ended there was a big whoop. “Woooooooooo!” It was like, “Welcome to San Francisco.”

A colleague of mine grinned and said, “Well that was something.”

But I’d already seen the images on press box TVs.

“The Bay Bridge is down,” I said.

Until then I’d never really understood what it meant to say someone’s face “fell.” Like everyone else, we were suddenly recalibrating everything we were about to do in the next few minutes, hours and days.

The weird part was that the crowd wouldn’t leave. The power for the sound system was out. There weren’t smartphones and most weren’t carrying transistor radios. So they sat, waiting for the game.

Somebody even held up a sign that said, “That was nothing. Wait ’til the Giants bat.” (True story. I’ve seen the photo.)

Former Giants marketing chief Pat Gallagher told me they finally sent someone out to pull up the bases. That, and seeing the players walking across the field to the exit, convinced people there wouldn’t be a game.

What we didn’t know was the craziness and tragedy unfolding all around us. Like the fires in the Marina. Or the unbelievable footage of a car speeding the wrong way across the empty Bay Bridge, reaching the downed section, flying out into space and crashing, killing the driver.

Years later, I had an idea for a book on the quake and its effect on San Francisco. I located and interviewed a lot of the key players, none of whom would ever forget Loma Prieta.

My favorite has always been Benji Young, a steeplejack who was employed by the Giants to help with the long streamers that flew from the tall stadium light standards. One of them had gotten tangled in the lights and Young climbed up and out on the catwalk to fix it. He was just stretching out his hand, reaching for the fabric, when it hit.

He describes how the light standard swung back and forth. Into the ballpark and then back out to the parking lots. Which would be better? To land in the seats or the concrete?

It held. As the swaying was dying down, Young had a logical reaction.

“I, like, barfed,” he said.

Every natural catastrophe has its miracles. Tim Petersen, an East Bay fireman, was sent on an errand just before the World Series began. Rushing to get back in time for the first pitch, he swung his pickup into the outside lane of the bridge, which he never did.

He has clear memories of people. A blonde woman in a white BMW. A gardener, driving a truck with lawn equipment hanging from the sides.

Petersen was on the Cypress Freeway, a double-deck overpass in Oakland that led to the Bay Bridge. He was on the lower deck, so when the top deck collapsed, it came down in massive concrete sections.

Cars were crushed to 24 inches. Only the solid bulk of the engines kept the slabs from pancaking everything flat.

Petersen was saved because he was next to the wall on the edge of the bridge. But he was in a terrible spot — pinned down and lying sideways on the bench seat of the crushed pickup. He was trapped in the tiny space, unable to move. Around him he could hear flattened cars exploding into flame.

And that’s when he remembered he had a can of gas in the back of the pickup.

Petersen lay there for hours, until he was saved by a fireman from another station. The two didn’t know each other then, but now they talk by telephone every Oct. 17.

We could go on, but you know most of it. Forty-two people died in the freeway tragedy. Collapsed houses, and fires, in the Marina. National attention because of the World Series. It was life-changing.

But it is worth pointing out, looking back, that there were a few good things that came out of this.

One was that the butt-ugly, concrete Embarcadero Freeway, which almost completely blocked the view of the water, was badly damaged. Then-Mayor Art Agnos secured federal funds to rebuild it.

But then he thought, “What if I use that money to tear the stupid thing down?” And that’s what he did. The takedown was incredibly unpopular with Chinatown mogul Rose Pak, and her ire may have cost him a second term, but when you see that view of the bay now, thank Mayor Agnos.

The quake also killed the Giants’ new baseball park. This was the final attempt to get the city to pay for a place that would replace the horrible wind tunnel that was Candlestick Park.

The measure was on the ballot, but when people voted, a month after the quake, the general feeling was: We’re trying to rebuild this city. And you want money for a ballpark?

The measure failed. But there’s a silver lining. The plan at that point was to build one of those generic baseball stadiums that have all the character of a concrete cereal bowl.

Instead, some 10 years later, the Giants financed a project themselves, and tapped into a national trend in charming, quirky city-centric ballparks. And that’s why we watch games in one of the coolest places in all of baseball.

There’s more, but you get it. A big quake only lasts seconds, but its influence ripples in every direction for years and years. It’s been three decades and we’re still talking about it.

The book I was going to write? It never happened. Not much interest from publishers. They didn’t see it as a compelling story.

Guess you had to be there.

Contact C.W. Nevius at cw.nevius@pressdemocrat.com. Twitter: @cwnevius

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