Disaster leaves impression on young photojournalist

On Oct. 17, 1989, I was just in the beginnings of my journalism career. I was the staff photographer for the Half Moon Bay Review, located about 20 miles south of San Francisco on the Northern California coast, and also shot prep sports for the San Mateo Times.
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On that day, I had been assigned to photograph a water polo match for the Times. After finishing the match, I was back in the darkroom, listening to the start of the Game 3 of the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics.

Just as I started to pour the developer chemicals into the tank, I felt a rumbling, an earthquake. No big deal, I thought. Growing up in Southern California and having lived in the Bay Area for a decade, I was used to earthquakes.

The rumbling became stronger and stronger. In just a few seconds, which seemed like minutes, I had to seek shelter in a doorway, just as I was taught in school. At the end of the rumblings came a sharp bang, then silence.

The emergency lights came on, and I was able to finish developing my film. The power was out. I was unable to make prints. So I left a note for the photo editor and headed to my car.

The only other person in the newsroom, the managing editor, was on the phone. I thought, "This is opportunity knocking."

I walked up to her and said, "I shoot prep sports. Can I help?" Her response to the person on the other end of the line was, "And there is a photographer in the room."

San Mateo is on the San Francisco Peninsula. It is on bedrock, which transfers the shock waves of an earthquake differently than land fill. As I went out in search of damage, all I could find were broken windows and stores where products had been shaken off their shelves.

After several hours I returned to the paper and developed my film. I finally had a chance to call my father to let him know I was OK.

Only as I spoke to his wife did I learn what had happened. She told me the Bay Bridge had collapsed. A double-deck freeway in Oakland had been demolished. There was a huge fire in the Marina District of San Francisco. This was a major earthquake. Days later I heard it was the second-strongest quake to hit the Bay Area since the 1906 quake.
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In the aftermath, I was sent to the Interstate 80 freeway collapse in Oakland. There was discussion of dumping the concrete waste in the Pacific Ocean right on top of the prime fishing grounds of the Half Moon Bay fleet. I could see the wave pattern of the earthquake in the remains of the freeway.
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I heard heroic stories of neighbors coming to the aid of people trapped on the freeway. I heard horrific stories of neighbors looting people trapped on the freeway.

A few days later I was sent to the scene of the Marina District fire. People from the Half Moon Bay area had cadaver dogs, and they were searching for remains.

It was a cold, dreary morning. I, along with other media members, were escorted past the police line and had several blocks to walk to the fire site. The pavement was broken and twisted.

The houses in the Marina District, as in most of San Francisco, are close together with the garage on street level and the rest of the home built above it.

Garage doors had been thrown open. We also noticed that the houses on the corners of the blocks suffered much more damage than the houses in the middle, which had been supported by the houses on either side.

We finally made it to the fire site, a grisly scene at that.

Where once stood a multistory, multifamily home, only a smoldering pile of ashes was left. Emergency personnel were working around the building with the cadaver dogs doing their search.

The media people talked with each other in hushed voices. Out of respect for the dead, perhaps. Maybe out of being overwhelmed by the scene we were covering.

I was so taken by what I was witnessing that I felt very guilty when a Red Cross worker offered me coffee. I felt that was for the people doing the real work, not for me.

Timothy Gonzalez is a photographer for the Statesman Journal. He can be reached at tgonzale@Salem.gannett.com.

In the aftermath, I was sent to the Interstate 80 freeway collapse in Oakland. There was discussion of dumping the concrete waste in the Pacific Ocean right on top of the prime fishing grounds of the Half Moon Bay fleet. I could see the wave pattern of the earthquake in the remains of the freeway.
Advertisement

I heard heroic stories of neighbors coming to the aid of people trapped on the freeway. I heard horrific stories of neighbors looting people trapped on the freeway.

A few days later I was sent to the scene of the Marina District fire. People from the Half Moon Bay area had cadaver dogs, and they were searching for remains.

It was a cold, dreary morning. I, along with other media members, were escorted past the police line and had several blocks to walk to the fire site. The pavement was broken and twisted.

The houses in the Marina District, as in most of San Francisco, are close together with the garage on street level and the rest of the home built above it.

Garage doors had been thrown open. We also noticed that the houses on the corners of the blocks suffered much more damage than the houses in the middle, which had been supported by the houses on either side.

We finally made it to the fire site, a grisly scene at that.

Where once stood a multistory, multifamily home, only a smoldering pile of ashes was left. Emergency personnel were working around the building with the cadaver dogs doing their search.

The media people talked with each other in hushed voices. Out of respect for the dead, perhaps. Maybe out of being overwhelmed by the scene we were covering.

I was so taken by what I was witnessing that I felt very guilty when a Red Cross worker offered me coffee. I felt that was for the people doing the real work, not for me.

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