HUNDREDS DIE IN SAN FRANCISCOA FESTIVE ATMOSPHERE RIPPED APART

SAN FRANCISCO — I am writing this column in the most frightening position I have ever been in, some 200 feet above the ground in Candlestick Park, which just moments ago was shaking as if the entire stadium were on a wagon being wheeled over cobblestone. An earthquake, they call it out here, with some regularity, and even as I type these words, the stadium occasionally rolls — aftershocks — with the concrete, the steel supports, everything shaking, as if suddenly there is no such thing as sturdy, not anymore.

There are people running across the field, players heading for the exits, grabbing their wives and their families, the festive atmosphere of this World Series Game 3 suddenly ripped apart. And yet, such is the nature of sports that when the initial quake hit, at 5:04 p.m. Tuesday, rumbling the stadium and swaying the field, some fans roared, they raised their fists, they made jokes. “It’s God. He’s a Giants fan!”

What do you do when the very ground beneath you begins to tremble, when you are in the upper bowl of a mammoth stadium with no hope of an exit — and suddenly there are reports of cracks in the concrete? I was on the phone with an editor in my office, discussing the night’s work, when the roller coaster feeling hit.

“Tom,” I said, “the stadium is . . . moving.”

“What?”

Suddenly the TV screens went out. The phones were gone. The rumbling continued for 15 seconds, and, in an instant, every little tidbit of earthquake advice came splashing back. Find an open space. Get away from overhead. Avoid doorways.

Stay alive. It happens elsewhere, right? Brett Butler was running sprints on the outfield when the earth began to quiver. “I felt like I was drunk or something,” he says now, holding onto a member of his family. “Then I looked up in the stands for my wife. My mother. I was screaming for them, to get out on the field. I still don’t have everybody.”

Suddenly there are no players here, no fans, no reporters; there are just people, and many of them are streaming down the ramps, leaping over the walls. Some are bare-chested, raising their beer cups and screaming “WOOH!” Others are crying, running to people with transistor radios, asking, no doubt, about the homes of their loved ones.

I have a little television plugged in my ear and the first pictures are coming across. They are, for someone who does not live with the daily threat of earthquakes, terrifying. The Bay Bridge is missing a chunk; it is dangling in the water. The Nimitz Highway that runs along the Oakland side of the bay is split in crooked lines, with cars stacked up. There are fires blazing and buildings have collapsed and they are now saying it is the worst earthquake since the big one of 1906.

On a local radio station, people are calling in, reporting the damage, defining the breadth of this disaster with every call.

“This is Sue from Oakland. We really felt it bad here. Our cable TV just blew out.”

“This is Sam from Napa. I have a 55-gallon fish tank in my living room, and this quake just sent 20 gallons of water splashing all over my dang floor.”

It is the kind of thing you hear about, but never envision yourself involved in. It happens elsewhere, right? You have a cousin or an aunt who told you about “the time I was in an earthquake.” But it was usually a rumble of the bed, a little shake. Not a stadium rocking. Buildings don’t fall down, do they? Players pointing to the sky Out on the field now, the players are collecting their loved ones, counting heads, streaming for the exits. “I’ve never been involved in anything like this,” says Pat Sheridan, the Giants outfielder, who once played in the friendlier confines of Tiger Stadium.
“Butler said to me, ‘You never been in an earthquake. You’re in one now.’ “

The lights went out. The network broadcast was lost. Players such as Jose Canseco and Carney Lansford were pointing to the sky, as if the rumble had come from the heavens, and others such as Giants manager Roger Craig and his pitcher Mike Krukow were heading for the safest ground, centerfield. In the Giants dugout a fan, reportedly suffering a heart attack, was being given oxygen by the team doctor.

Madness. The whole thing seems so crazy. An earthquake? I can only describe the feeling as the noise of a jet plane, combined with the shaking of a bumpy bus ride. That is the outside feeling. What you feel inside depends, I suppose, on your level of courage.

Darkness is beginning to fall. I suddenly realize that we are without power, without lights. A voice comes over a bullhorn.

“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THOSE IN THE UPPER LEVEL ARE BEING ASKED TO EVACUATE THE PREMISES IMMEDIATELY.” ‘Everybody’s homeless now’ There is no more writing. What you are reading now, I am speaking into a telephone, one of the few that seem to be working on these suddenly crumbled streets. The game, of course, was postponed; baseball hardly matters right now. And the bus that took us from Candlestick into the gnarl of panic traffic along Highway 101 could get us no closer than a half mile of our hotel.

On the little television screen, scenes of this suddenly ravaged city were coming fast now, one more incredible than the next. Cars crushed between levels of the collapsed Bay Bridge. A raging fire in the Marina area, which fire fighters could not contain because the water pipes beneath the ground were crushed in the quake. So fast? Can all this destruction really happen in 15 terrible seconds?

This city has always been beautiful, a favorite place to walk the streets, and yet now we are walking these streets and there is something ungodly about them, dark, eerie, no lights anywhere. People wandering with no place to go and no way of getting there.

We passed 9th Street and it was covered in glass. Broken glass from shattered windows forming a jagged blanket that glistened in the light of street flares. We passed a tall white apartment building. “Call the police,” came a woman’s voice. “Call the police.”

Who could you call? What could you do? There were reports of looting and reports of people trapped in houses that were, hours ago, two stories tall and now were in the street. It was like a scene from one of those nuclear war films, people wandering aimlessly, the distant sound of alarms and sirens.

“Everybody’s homeless now,” mumbled a colleague.

Can it be that this night began with a baseball game? That seems so long ago.

Years from now, people will talk about where they were during this earthquake. It will become a war story, a badge of courage in the sports world, a yarn that may grow larger and more horrible with each retelling.

It is hard to imagine that now. Something harsh and terrible has happened here, smack in the center of the nation’s biggest game.

I am hanging up the phone and walking to, God, I really don’t know where. It is the night the earth shook, and nobody seems to know much anymore.

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