We all have that “where were you” memory associated with big historic events. Where were you on 9/11? Where were you when Armstrong walked on the moon? For those of us of a somewhat advanced age, where were you when Kennedy was shot? Events we share, but are also particular to just us.
This past July was the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing. I remember watching on tv as a fifteen-year-old in our family room in San Jose with Mom, Dad, and the two brothers. Dad worked for Lockheed Missiles and Space and had previously worked for Aerojet General, an Apollo engine contractor. I remember Dad getting up and coming to each of the three boys, looking us in the face and shaking our hands. He and Mom had been born before Lindbergh’s flight, lived through depression and war, and now, we had achieved this.
Another event happened thirty years ago today. I spent the summer of 1989 working on television broadcasts of the Giants and the A’s. Both were having a good year. Baseball fans recall Will Clark, Kevin Mitchell, Matt Williams, Mike Krukow, Dave Stewart, Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, and Dennis Eckersley as just a few of the players that would meet in the Fall Classic. It was the first and still the only time they would meet in the World Series.
Oakland took a 2-0 lead in the first two games at the Oakland Coliseum. The network coverage was on ABC. Major League Baseball packages their show to the world, allowing for each country to add their announcers and languages. I was hired as one of three tape operators for the French-Canadian feed. For game 3, we were in a smaller truck parked against the wall of Candlestick Park, right at the press entrance. We had a camera in our booth in the football press box and another for pre and post-game interviews. The ABC trucks were parked further up the third-base side of the outside wall of the park with various station news vans in-between.
As we came on the air, Tom, our booth cameraman, was standing on a table so he could frame Claude and Denis, our announcers, with the field behind them. At 5:04, things started to shake. A friend who was coming into the park to watch the game told me he looked across the parking lot and saw cars rising and falling as if a wave was going through it. Jon, Jerry, and I looked at each other in our little tape room as we realized it was an earthquake. Our two truck engineers were from out of state and they bolted for the door. The truck’s power went out as we shook. Now we, the locals, followed our engineers out the door and away from the wall of concrete above the truck. The quake lasted for, at most, 15 seconds. That may not seem like a long time, but please look at your watch’s second hand, sit quietly for fifteen seconds and imagine your world bouncing all the while.
Once the shaking stopped, the capacity crowd let loose with a huge cheer. We realized that this was the biggest quake that any of us had ever experienced. Power was out for all except the local news vans using their on-board generators. As we waited for power to be restored, I wandered up the row looking in the open doors of the vans. That is where I saw the first pictures coming in from the Marina district, the Bay Bridge, and the collapsed freeway in Oakland. Our little baseball game had turned quickly into an international disaster story.
We waited for the next three hours as the dusk turned into a very dark night. The hope was that power would be restored and we would be the originating source for Canadian news coverage. But it would not be restored that night. We were asked to remain available for the next few days just in case we went back up. That didn’t happen either. I left southeast San Francisco in complete darkness and drove home down the mostly darkened peninsula. In my Menlo Park apartment, my power was out and would stay out for the next three days. My floor to ceiling bookshelves had all collapsed. In the small pool outside, more than a foot of water had shaken out.
After midnight, the phone rang. Dan Rather was coming to Oakland, was I available to work there for a few days? Having committed to the Canadians, I said I wasn’t. A friend took that job and was on the clock for the next five days straight. Once released until the Series would restart, I did work for the PBS station in town feeding the national network. I was on a crew that went down to Watsonville and Santa Cruz where the damage was as serious as the Bay Area to the north. Aftershocks continued for the next week. Geraldo came to the Marina district and did a show I worked on. I also worked on the multi venue benefit concert for earthquake relief.
Ten days after the quake, the World Series resumed with multiple first responders throwing out the ceremonial first pitches. Oakland swept the Giants and the Bay Bridge Series ended even as crews were working to rebuild the namesake bridge. It ended an October that the Bay Area would never forget. Nor will I.
(On a familial note, our great grandfather, great grandmother, and grandfather Watt survived the 1906 earthquake and fire. They were evacuated to Alameda across the Bay.)Published in