Fifteen seconds, twenty years ago

On October 17, 1989, I was sure that I was going to die.

I was sixteen years old, home alone, talking to a friend on the phone.   Then, suddenly, the ground beneath me started to sway. “We’re having an earthquake,” I said to her, calmly.  “I’ll call you back.”  A blase reaction, perhaps; but then, as a native Californian, I had been through lots of tremblers.  I knew the drill: get to the doorway, the strongest part of the room, and wait it out.

But as I crossed the few feet between the phone stand and the family room door, it was suddenly not just any old earthquake.  It was unlike anything I’d ever felt: the swaying, the rocking, the  rolling and heaving.  If you’ve ever stood on a moving platform at an amusement park, you know the feeling — only it was stronger, and more terrifying, and I could not get off to safety.

I am going to die alone here, I thought to myself, as the hutch top of the bookshelf crashed to the floor a few feet away.  This is the Big One.  There was that sickening sound of windows rattling and walls creaking and the rumbling, that terrible rumbling — the scariest part of a quake, in many ways, a sound that makes you think, in some primal way, that you have angered the earth, that it is alive and not to be appeased.  I flattened my back to the doorframe and cried and prayed, too, I think.  There was no time to do anything else.

And then, slowly, it stopped, and the earth settled into place.


My sister called me from college, having just heard the news on the radio. I assured her, shakily, that I was fine, and then my grandfather called, and then the phones went down for several hours. My sister ended up being the point person, the one who told all the out-of-town family that we were safe.

It’s odd to remember that, when my parents returned home, I worried aloud about the fact that the power was out and I would not be able to study for my U.S. history test the next day.  “I don’t think you’ll be going to school tomorrow,” said my dad, and he was right.  Everything, it seemed, had to be checked for cracks and damage before life could go on as normal.

And for many people, it didn’t go on as normal.  Lives were lost in the Cypress freeway collapse and on the streets of San Francisco.  My mother, who was hiking in the hills at the time of the quake, saw the tower of St. Joseph’s Seminary fall, sickeningly, into the building below it.  A repairman was killed in that collapse.  Many lost their homes.  A lot of us lost a certain kind of innocence.

I guess it’s good to be reminded that things can change, so quickly, in a matter of seconds.  It’s scary, though, too — and, to be honest, it’s one of the biggest faith struggles I have.  The suffering that comes from earthquakes, from storms, from tornadoes and tsunamis — it’s not a suffering that we bring on ourselves, we humans, from our bad or misguided choices.  It’s utterly beyond our control.  It’s one piece of the design of the universe that I just don’t understand.

And yet, twenty years later, it’s good to remember what I did take away from that experience.  I learned something pretty important as I clung to that doorframe and heard the rumbling fade away and realized that I wasn’t a goner after all.   I learned something that it’s embarrassingly easy to forget in the crazed hectic rush of my daily life.

I learned that life is pretty damn precious, and that I’m really damn glad to be here.

And that is definitely worth remembering.

Photo of St. Joseph’s Seminary by H.G.Wilshire, USGS

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