Earthquake Information


October 17, 1989

A magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck the Bay Area just before the third game of the World Series at Candlestick Park; the worst earthquake since 1906. The tremor collapsed a section of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Six of the deaths occurred when the exterior of a brick building collapsed at 6th and Bluxome streets in the South of Market District. Damage was estimated at almost three billion dollars in San Francisco, which was approximately one-half of the total damage figure for the entire earthquake zone.

The earthquake knocked out power to San Francisco, and the city was dark for the first time since the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. Power was fully restored by October 20. Emergency telephone service became sporadic because a fire broke out in the 9-1-1 telephone equipment room, and citizens had to rely on fire alarm boxes for three days for emergency protection from fire. The quake killed 62 people throughout Central California, injured 3757 and left more than 12,000 homeless.

At least 27 fires broke out across the City, including a major blaze in the Marina District where apartment buildings sank into a lagoon filled with bay mud in preparation for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915. Dozens of people were rescued by firefighters from fallen buildings in the area that were imperiled by the flames. As they had done in 1906, citizens formed a bucket brigade to help firefighters who were without water because of broken mains. A magnitude 5.2 aftershock struck 37 minutes after the initial shock.

Interstate 280 rocked so viciously during the earthquake that sections of the freeway slammed into one another, cracking off pieces. Some columns actually fractured, exposing the reinforcing steel in places where the concrete disintegrated. The Embarcadero Freeway along the Waterfront was nearly destroyed by the shaking, though Caltrans said it could be repaired.

Sporadic but minor looting broke out in the downtown Shopping District near Fifth and Market streets, the Inner Mission and Hunters Point areas. District Attorney Arlo Smith said, "If there's anyone arrested tonight for burglary or looting, tomorrow morning we're going to go into court and demand that there be no bail. Anyone engaged in that kind of conduct can expect maximum sentences." 24-year-old DeSoto Barker was shot and killed by a motorist upset by the earthquake chaos. DeSoto was at first depicted as a Good Samaritan, but Police Inspector Michael Byrne later said he had stolen traffic flares from legitimate volunteers and provoked his own shooting death.

The earthquake triggered a four-foot tsunami wave in Monterey Bay as well as a huge undersea landslide. The sea level at Santa Cruz dropped three feet as water rushed out of the harbor. The tsunami wave took 20 minutes to travel from Santa Cruz to Monterey.

Lombard St., the "crookedest street in the world," was closed because a cable car was left stranded at Hyde and Lombard by the earthquake power failure.

The earthquake gravely damaged Peoples Temple, housed in the former Albert Pike Memorial on Geary Blvd. The building had been badly damaged during the 1906 earthquake.

The Municipal Organ at Civic Auditorium was badly damaged by the earthquake, and was out of commission. It had also been damaged during the 1957 earthquake.

People in San Francisco, 56 miles from the epicenter, felt the earthquake about 23 seconds later than the people in Santa Cruz, 10 miles away. People in Sacramento, 100 miles distant, felt it about 22 seconds later. The strong motion recorder at Corralitos-Eureka Canyon Road, near the epicenter, recorded the earthquake beginning at 5:04:21 p.m. The first quake wave arrived one second later at the Fire Station in Capitola. The first wave began to shake the water tank at Gavilan College in Gilroy at 5:04:24 p.m. Strong motion instruments at the Pulgas Water Temple at Upper Crystal Springs Reservoir recorded the quake beginning at 5:04:31 p.m. The Sierra Point Freeway overpass monitor, nearest to Candlestick Park, recorded the quake at 5:04:34 p.m. The quake wave arrived at the Presidio of San Francisco, nearest the Marina District, at 5:04:37 with the heaviest shaking recorded at 5:04:47 p.m.

The performance of Mozart's "Idomeneo" at the Opera House was canceled after the earthquake. Water and sewage were flowing in the basement of the War Memorial and Veterans' Building. There was no word on whether "Othello" will open this weekend as scheduled.


April 18, 1906

San Francisco was wrecked by a Great Earthquake and then destroyed by the seventh Great Fire that burned for four days. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of trapped persons died when South-of-Market tenements collapsed into liquefied "made" ground. Most of those buildings immediately caught fire and trapped victims could not be rescued. Fire Chief Engineer Dennis T. Sullivan was mortally wounded when a chimney of California Theatre and hotel fell upon the fire station in which he lived at 410-412 Bush St. Acting Chief Engineer John Dougherty commanded fire operations. All telephone and telegraph communications stopped within the city, although some commercial telegraph circuits to New York and to India remained temporarily in operation. There were 135 aftershocks on April 18 and 22 on April 19.

The earthquake was so strong that sensitive seismographs around the Bay were either knocked from their supports or the records went off the scale, so that they gave no information as to the actual earthquake movements.

The shock was perceptible from Coos Bay, Oregon, to Los Angeles, and as Far East as central Nevada, an area of about 375,000 square miles, approximately half of which was in the Pacific Ocean. The region of destructive effect extended from the southern part of Fresno County to Eureka, about 400 miles, and for a distance of 25 to 30 miles on either side of the fault zone. The distribution of intensity within the region of destruction was uneven. Of course all structures standing on or crossing the rift were destroyed or badly damaged. Many trees standing near the fault were either uprooted or broken off. Perhaps the most marked destruction of trees near Loma Prieta, where, according to Dr. John C. Branner, "The forest looked as though a swath had been cut through it two hundred feet in width." In little less than a mile he counted 345 earthquake cracks running in all directions.

The earthquake dreadfully damaged the U.S. Post Office at Seventh and Mission Streets. Assistant to the Postmaster Burke said, "walls had been thrown into the middle of various rooms, destroying furniture and covering everything with dust. In the main corridors the marble was split and cracked, while the mosaics were shattered and had come rattling down upon the floor. Chandeliers were rent and twisted by falling arches and ceilings."

Within the area of destruction, the distribution of destructive effects was far from uniform. These were greatest in the immediate neighborhood of the fault zone, but there were place many miles from the San Andreas Fault where the earthquake destruction was greater than in other places near the fault. Intensified effects were found in the alluvial valley region extending from San Jose to Healdsburg. Santa Rosa, twenty miles from the San Andreas Fault line, sustained more damage, in proportion to its size than any other city in the state. This suggested to scientists the possible movement on the Hayward fault, and perhaps others, although no surface indications of such movement were found.


Earthquakes and Chinatown.

On April 18, 1906, a huge earthquake devastated San Francisco. As fires raged, Chinatown was leveled. It seemed that what the city and country wanted for fifty years, nature had accomplished in forty-five seconds. Ironically, because the immigration records and vital statistics at City Hall had been destroyed, many Chinese were able to claim citizenship, and then send for their children and families in China. Legally, all children of U.S. citizens were automatically citizens, regardless of their place of birth. Thus began the influx of “paper sons and paper daughters" - instant citizens - which helped balance the demographics of Chinatown's "bachelor society." Finally, Chinatown had what it had been missing for so long - children.

The city fathers had no intention of allowing Chinatown to be rebuilt in its own neighborhood, on valuable land next to the Financial District. While they were deciding where to relocate the Chinese, a wealthy businessman named Look Tin Eli developed a plan to rebuild Chinatown to its original location. He obtained a loan from Hong Kong and designed the new Chinatown to be more emphatically "Oriental" to draw tourists. The old Italianate buildings were replaced by Edwardian architecture embellished with theatrical chinoiserie. Chinatown, like the phoenix, rose from the ashes with a new facade, dreamed up by an American-born Chinese man, built by white architects, looking like a stage-set China that does not exist.

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