Skip to main content

A Real Jolt

June 2024
4min read

Early on the evening of October 17, 1989, my husband, Tom, and I were traveling along Highway 880 near San Francisco at 5:02 P.M. , returning a rented car to the Oakland Airport after traveling around California. We had come from the University of Pennsylvania and were about to attend an international conference at Berkeley on the characteristics, including failures, of large technological systems. We little dreamed that we were about to become our own case study.

A few moments earlier I had almost failed to turn onto 880 and off Route 80, which would have taken us over the Bay Bridge into San Francisco. That would have been an adventure too. Moments later I felt that the car was getting a flat tire, this brand-new car, for it yawed about—not out of control, but I had to work to keep it straight on the road. The wheels felt as if they were caught in a trolley track and going their own way. That feeling was the earth quaking under us, but we had absolutely no suspicion of that; an earthquake was the last thing we Easterners would think of. I struggled in the fast, quitting-time traffic to cross several lanes and move from far left to right in case an exit mercifully appeared. I was watching anxiously in the rearview mirrors for fear of being struck from behind. Tom, meanwhile, was watching out immediately in front of us. So engrossed were we that neither of us was looking very far in front. But to Tom’s astonishment he saw the cars ahead plunging down onto a highway buckling into accordian folds. At that same instant he spied a small exit and said I’d better take it. I thought I couldn’t possibly get across the remaining two lanes, but he said, “Go for it.” I did. Alternately hitting the accelerator and tapping the brake so that the rear lights would let people behind me know I was in trouble, I somehow made it onto the little exit ramp. Off to our left I observed something appalling about the scene just behind us: the roadway seemed to go abruptly down, then too far up, and several cars were strewn about and stopped on the destroyed highway above, light poles were awry, and over everything hung a sinister pall of gray smoke. The smoke turned out to be concrete dust rising from the highway breakup. We did not see then that the elevated part of the freeway had collapsed onto the part below.

We simply couldn’t take in what had happened. First we thought there must have been a dreadful multiple-car accident such as those you hear about on European autobahns, one so extensive that it had damaged the highway. Or we thought that some unscrupulous highway contractors had cut costs during construction. Our denial and confusion persisted as we slowly proceeded, picking our way around the broken concrete that was strewn across the ramp and the road below, seeing no one except a young man with a bloody nose who refused assistance and simply motioned us on. And so we continued away from the highway, afraid that it might give way laterally upon us. I still couldn’t absorb that all of this had literally just happened. And I don’t recall feeling frightened—I was too engrossed in trying to control the car and get it off the road. I only felt somewhat “outside” myself. Not until I belatedly realized that we no longer had a flat tire did the reality finally dawn on us. Tom and I looked dumfoundedly at each other and asked, “Could this have been an earthquake?”

We drove very slowly down into the railroad and dock area trying to get our bearings (emotionally and geographically) and saw lots of people on the streets, because that is what one does in an earthquake: get outside. We began to realize that we had avoided a personal catastrophe by a few feet and a few seconds, and that others were suffering or dying because of this immense disaster. We later learned that ours was the first car to avoid being caught in the collapse of our particular section of highway; the exit ramps had acted as flying buttresses that prevented its collapse.

Finally we came to a more settled area and stopped to ask directions. We confirmed that there had indeed been an earthquake. Then I saw the Bay Area Rapid Transit go by. The train had current, although everything else around was without lights, phone, television, or radio. The stoplights were out, so anxious people, dazed or shocked, were trying hazardous crossings at intersections already choked with rush-hour traffic. We were experiencing firsthand the failure of large technological systems.

We proceeded to Oakland, thinking, I suppose, that lightning and earthquakes don’t strike twice in the same place. We even got back up on Route 880, since that was the only way we knew to the airport. We arrived at the car return, which was without working phones or a television, and told the people there what had happened. One of the attendants considerately drove us to the airport terminal. There we saw hundreds of people standing about, some knotted around little portable radios, trying vainly to discover what had happened in the city. As no one was using the taxis, we climbed into one with a driver who proved to be not only a student but also the son of a tribal chieftain from Kenya and the brother of a member of Kenya’s parliament. We three consoled one another during the lengthy and circuitous route home to the hotel, and Tom and I helped guide our driver through the choked intersections, which were without traffic lights.

I later learned that ours was the first car to avoid being caught in the collapse of this section of highway.

Under duress my husband has the habit of matter-of-factly expounding information. So that day he described to us the thesis of his latest book as we wove our way to the hotel. With no highway, we had to go through one of the toughest sections of Oakland. At one point the driver looked around and said, “Madame, this is no place for me and it is certainly no place for you.” We all laughed and hoped that on this strange day of collapses, his cab wouldn’t fall apart right there.

But he returned us to the doors of the Durand Hotel, refusing to stop a couple of blocks short when we saw someone else looking for a cab. “This is my city,” he said, “and it is my responsibility to see you safely to the hotel on this dreadful day.” Tom gave him a huge tip.

The next day, after a night of aftershocks that rocked the city, we went to the conference center at Berkeley and tried hard to shake off the all-tooreal memories of 880 while we focused abstractly—footnotes and all—on the idea of large technological systems and their failures.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.

Donate