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The Loma Prieta earthquake struck the Bay Area 30 years ago, and it looked like this

It brought down a major freeway, part of the Bay Bridge, and numerous structures

Firefighters spray a three-story building with water as it collapses onto the street.
Crews demolish a collapsed apartment building, constructed on landfill, in the Marina District following the Loma Prieta earthquake.
Photo by AP Photo/George Nikitin

For the 30th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake—the 6.9 tremor struck October 17, 1989 shortly before game three of the World Series between the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants—Curbed SF will feature quake-related coverage looking back at that fateful day, and what you can do to prepare for the next big one.


The Loma Prieta earthquake, a 6.9 temblor that struck the Bay Area on October 17, 1989, at 5:04 p.m., killed 63 people, injured almost 3,800, and caused up to $10 billion in damage.

The earthquake, occurring just before game three of the World Series between the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants, was captured by ABC cameras the moment it hit.

Centered on the San Andreas Fault in the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park, roughly 10 miles north of Santa Cruz, the quake could be felt as far away as San Diego and western Nevada.

Bricks fell off a facade in SoMa at Sixth and Bluxome streets, killing five people who were leaving work. Apartment buildings in the Marina District toppled onto the streets and crushed cars. Homes and businesses in Santa Cruz buckled.

The Loma Prieta earthquake lasted 15 seconds, but the damage it caused reverberates today.

Rescue workers in hardhats walking on a crumbling multiple-leveled freeway.
The collapse of Interstate 880 Cypress structure.
Photo by AP
People gently lower the corpse of a body to rescue workers.
Paramedics and police remove one of several victims of the collapse of the Cypress freeway.
Photo by AP Photo/Stuart Brinn

Cypress Freeway in Oakland

One of the biggest devastations was the collapse of the Cypress Street Viaduct (aka the Cypress Freeway), which ran through West Oakland. The upper tier collapsed onto the lower tier, crushing dozens of cars and killing several dozen people. In fact, 42 of the earthquake’s 63 victims were killed in the viaduct’s collapse.

West Oakland residents immediately responded to the crisis, using their own ladders and ropes to climb up into the rubble and rescue those trapped inside. Some were sandwiched in between slabs of concrete for days. Buck Helm, a “feisty longshoreman,” according to an Associated Press report in 1989, was trapped for four days.

In the year 2005, the demolished viaduct was replaced by a landscaped median, Mandela Parkway, named after South African leader Nelson Mandela. In it stands a public memorial at 14th Street, featuring a statue of twisted metal columns, recalling the collapsed part of the freeway and the ladders that rescuers used trying to rescue survivors.

An aerial shot of a bridge with a chunk fallen down onto the lower deck.
Aerial shot of the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge shortly after the quake.
A police officer inspects the fallen part of the bridge that a car has crashed into.
A California Highway Patrol officer checks the damage to cars that fell when the upper deck of the Bay Bridge collapsed onto the lower deck.
Photo by AP Photo/George Nikitin
A woman stands outside of her red car while she and other drivers wait on the lower half of the bay bridge.
Motorists turn their cars around and wait to drive back to San Francisco.
Photo by AP Photo/George Nikitin

The San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge

After suffering only four inches of movement during the tremor, a 76-by-50-foot section of the upper deck on the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge’s eastern side fell onto the deck below. Only one person was killed during the structural giveaway, but this time it was due to human error.

Anamafi Moala, 23, was reportedly misdirected by emergency crews to the upper deck of the Bay Bridge, where she drove eastward toward the collapsed section. Unable to see the gap, she plunged over the edge and smashed onto the collapsed edge of the roadway. Moala died at the scene and her brother, a passenger in the car, was seriously injured.

Although the bridge was repaired and used for years following the quake, the eastern span of the Bay Bridge was finally replaced in 2013 by a self-anchored suspension bridge, which cost roughly $6.5 billion to build. Notably, it was designed with technology that allows the bridge’s tower to accommodate six feet of movement and remain standing during a strong earthquake.

“After Loma Prieta, we had to come up with new criteria to build bridges so we could get goods and services into an area that’s significantly damaged,” Caltrans spokesman Bart Ney told KTVU in a September interview. “We did a lot of studies. We invented new technologies so the bridge would move in a large scale earthquake.”

The brick archway of a building entrance is slanted and ready to buckle. A couple stands and hugs each other amid the rubble.
An unidentified couple hug each other as they stand in the middle of their belongings outside an earthquake-damaged home in the Marina.
Photo by AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy
25 Years Since The Bay Area Earthquake: Then And Now
Before-and-after composite image: Top, a worker surveys the damage caused by a fire in the Marina District after the Loma Prieta earthquake. Bottom, a man waits for a bus on the corner of Beach and Divisadero 25 years later in 2014.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
25 Years Since The Bay Area Earthquake: Then And Now
Before-and-after composite image, Top, an apartment building on the corner of Beach and Divisadero is seen shored up after the quake. Bottom, apartment buildings built in the same spot, as seen in 2014.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
An aerial photo showing a massive fire happening in the middle of a residential neighborhood. A news helicopter hovers above.
A firestorm erupts in the Marina.
Photo by Bay Area News Group Archive

San Francisco’s Marina District

Built on a landfill, the Marina underwent severe liquefaction, meaning the stiffness of its soil was loosened by the shaking of the earthquake, and as a result several of the neighborhood’s apartment buildings collapsed. Numerous firestorms also ignited following the quake, and firefighters had to use water from the bay to battle the blazes.

Residents were told to evacuate from homes deemed unsafe and given 15 minutes to collect whatever belongings they could carry that day. Four people in the Marina died during the quake, and a total of 124 buildings were destroyed or damaged.

A man with a lampshade on his head as he pushed around a TV, lamp, and other belongings on a city street.
An unidentified man wears a lampshade on his head as he wheels a load of belongings through the Marina district of San Francisco, Oct. 20, 1989.
Photo by AP Photo/John Swart

The neighborhood rebuilt itself within a decade, but the earthquake forever changed the feel of the Marina.

As Kevin Fagen of the San Francisco Chronicle notes: “Many of the older residents took their insurance money and left, and with them went a lot of the businesses that had given Chestnut Street, the Marina’s main drag, its comfy but faded feel. Homegrown shops were often replaced with chains. Home prices dipped a sliver for a couple of years, then bounced right back.”

Bricks scattered all over the sidewalk and street and on top of a car that is crushed.
A car crushed by collapsed brick facade in SoMa.
Photo by USGS

San Francisco’s South of Market

Five people died under a hail of bricks when the quake wrenched off the top of a four-story building at Fifth Street and Bluxome. South of Market was one of the areas hardest hit by the earthquake.

A cliffside with partial material, like sand and dirt, falling down to the beach below.
Aerial view of Daly City.
Photo by USGS

Coastal areas

The quake also triggered numerous landslides along the coast, including cliffside areas in Fort Funston, Tunitas Creek, Daly City (as seen above, which displaced approximately 36,700 cubic meters of material), and San Gregorio Beach.

Collapsed outer wall of the Medico Dental Building at the Pacific Garden Mall in Santa Cruz.
Photo by USGS
Bicycles crushed by falling unreinforced brick facade on Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz.
Photo by USGS
A Santa Cruz parking lot resembled a campground after the quake, which forced the evacuation of a retirement hotel. Residents slept in spaces normally reserved for cars.
Photo by AP Photo/Doug Pizac

Santa Cruz

The epicenter of the quake was in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The little seaside enclave of Santa Cruz, primarily a college town, saw plenty of damage to its main drag, Pacific Avenue, following the temblor. A total of 20 buildings collapsed and 50 businesses were displaced.

Three decades later, the downtown strip (formerly known as the Pacific Garden Mall), has been replaced. Most of the demolished structures, which had been built from brick, were replaced by wood, steel, and concrete structures, all of which bend and flex during a quake.

“In response to the earthquake, local jurisdictions were required to identify all unreinforced masonry buildings, or buildings not secured with stabilizing material, and create a program to retrofit them, according to the city of Santa Cruz’s Municipal Code,” reports the Santa Cruz Sentinel. “Another section of the code requires all residential remodel or additional permits to dedicate a certain amount of construction cost to improve the building’s resistance to seismic forces, according to John McLucas, deputy building official with the city of Santa Cruz.”