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How Kent Porter nailed iconic Loma Prieta photo on Bay Bridge

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For Press Democrat photographer Kent Porter, Oct. 17, 1989, started out as another day at the ballpark.

Hired by the newspaper two years earlier, Porter, a 27-year-old who grew up in Lake County, had shot scores of Giants games at Candlestick Park and was set up that fateful day for the third game of the World Series against the Oakland A’s.

By day’s end, Porter had — at great personal risk and with abundant perspiration — nailed a photograph of two cars trapped in the collapse of the upper span on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, 7 miles from the ballpark that was demolished in 2015.

Snapped up by the Associated Press, the photo was published around the world and was the first of four Porter photos to make the front page of the New York Times, which owned The Press Democrat from 1985 to 2012.

It is, Porter said, “a ho-hum photo of a car stuck on a bridge,” lacking a clear human figure photographers typically rely on to establish scale.

But, he said, “I was in the right place at the right time to make the right picture.”

When the magnitude 6.9 temblor struck at 5:04 p.m., Porter bolted from the stadium, shot some images of broken glass on the streets of the Financial District, then drove to the Ferry Building intent on getting to the ruptured span.

Police had closed the bridge, so Porter set out on foot and wound up running most of the way east to Treasure Island, with two cameras over his shoulders, three lenses in a fanny pack and 30 rolls of film in a pouch on his belt. To evade roadblocks, Porter three times resorted to climbing over the bridge railing and scaling the exposed ladders between the two decks, with nothing between him and the bay water far below.

The ladders have since been enclosed by locked steel brackets.

At Treasure Island, he met a truckload of sailors, wearing blue jeans and blue shirts, which matched Porter’s attire. They gave him a white cap and peacoat to blend in and delivered him to the broken edge of the upper deck, which had dropped like a trapdoor amid the shaking that did $6 billion in damage.

“I walked right up to the split,” he recalled, pressed for time as daylight was dimming.

With a man holding his belt from behind, Porter leaned over the edge, bracing his camera against the bridge to keep it steady. “I’m shooting away,” he said, while doubting his safety in the event of an aftershock.

He had no way of knowing what was on the film as he made his way back to the AP photo trailer parked at the stadium.

All eyes in the crowded trailer fixed on him, in a sweat-soaked shirt, and Porter’s first thought was the photos were poorly exposed and he had blown it completely.

Then Peter Leabo, the AP photo editor in San Francisco, shook his hand and said, “Helluva photo.”

Jodie Steck, then the PD’s photo editor, hugged him and said, “It’s international. People are calling and asking about it.”

The iconic photo never won any awards, but Porter has many in a career of covering wildfires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and riots.

And the story of how he got that shot on the Bay Bridge is “one I’ll tell until the day I die,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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