SAN FRANCISCO — Roman Jones, a thin young musician with wire rim glasses, was about to step into the shower when the earth opened up. The floor began to rumble. The pictures began to shake. Outside on Sixth Street, a crack split down the center of the asphalt, and water began to spurt from the gash, like blood from an open wound.
“What the hell is going on?” said Jones to his roommate, Jeff Reynolds.
Reynolds said, “Run!”
Suddenly, the ceiling fell on them, they were covered with plaster and their feet were racing through the darkness — where did the lights go? — hearts beating, they heard screams in the hallway, and all they could think of was get outside, get outside. They burst through the lobby and the ground still shook, the sidewalk was evil, it was alive, rising. They kept running.
“The faster we ran,” James says, “the worse it seemed to get.”
He tugs on his shirt now and sighs. It is quiet and dim in the shelter at Moscone Center, still no electricity, and Jones is surrounded by fellow victims, lying in cots and gulping down Red Cross coffee. All he owns in the world at this moment is here at his feet — a bag of clothes, a bag of cassette tapes and an electric guitar, which he sneaked out of the building an hour ago, before the police shut it down.
It is the morning after the night they can never forget, the earthquake, the growling of the planet. And even here, as the residents talk about the Anglo Hotel, their former home, which now rests six new inches above the sidewalk, the disaster continues. Across the bay on the Oakland side, they are plowing through concrete of I-880, which collapsed during rush hour, killing Lord knows how many. Dogs are sniffing for the scent of life and the dead bodies are stacked on the road, covered with jackets.
The horror. The survival. The earthquake. What strikes you most as you travel the shaken streets in this bay area is how such an awesome force could be both so fast and so fickle. It came in the middle of a perfectly glorious afternoon, warm sun, warm breeze, it took 15 seconds, and set this area back months, maybe longer. It razed some buildings to rubble, and left others untouched. It amused some people, and forced others to drive off a bridge.
“I’m from Philadelphia originally, man,” says Jones, as a woman mumbles in a nearby cot. “I don’t need this bleep. Damn. I was just starting to get my life together.” Bee antennas for light
You live here, you take your chances. That’s what they tell you. But that was before Tuesday, when “earthquake” meant a rumble in the night and then back to sleep. We had come here to cover a baseball game, a World Series, and suddenly we were wandering on Market Street, after midnight, like lost children, no place to go, no lights, no food. People slept in doorways. On benches. Occasionally you heard a scream. A siren. A vendor — don’t ask me where these guys come from — lugged out two sacks of electric bee antennas, the kind John Belushi used to wear as the King Bee on Saturday Night Live, and they lit up, providing two dots of green light, enough to see the face in front of you.
“How much?” people said, surrounding him.
“Five bucks,” said the guy. “Five bucks. Got plenty.”
And soon, because people will pay anything to avoid total darkness, there were hundreds of souls walking San Francisco with little bee antennas on their heads.
It was paradise gone mad, a lullaby of a city, now snarling and covered in shattered glass. The worst quake since 1906? Is that what they said?
The night seemed to last forever, and yet, as long as it was dark, there was hope that the world would be different in the morning. That all these pictures, transmitted on battery- operated TV sets, pictures of one house leaning into the next like a drunken sailor, and a 50-foot section of the upper level Bay Bridge, collapsed through to the lower level, which collapsed through to the water, would somehow soften in the morning light. Body count grows
Instead, the images grew starker in the daylight, more real. The body count began to grow as police and fire reports came in. Over 200 lost on the 880 collapse. Four killed in a shopping mall crumble in Santa Cruz. One man killed on the highway when horses broke free from a trailer and smacked into his car, veering him out of control. At least 272 dead.
“I saw five bodies myself,” said Ronnie McAuliffe, a bearded man with a Chicago Cubs cap who was assigning empty cots at the Red Cross shelter. “A wall of a building over near Townsend Street just collapsed on these five cars, just buried them in a pile. I jumped in and started pulling bricks from there, you know, trying to get to them out?
He sighed and made a shivering motion, then shook his head.
“They were dead, all right. Police came and took them.”
All around San Francisco Wednesday, people were walking, no particular destination, few places were open, just walking, looking, seeing cracks in the middle of a townhouse and garage doors smashed into the cars beneath them. It was arbitrary, as if the devil had said: “Eenie, meenie, minie . . . crunch.”
Near the Marina area, streets were blocked off with yellow police barriers. It was here that the fires raged most fiercely, fires that could not be put out quickly Tuesday night for want of water that was snapped off when the quake destroyed the pipes.
Vic Giannini, a 71-year-old retiree, was watching TV Tuesday when he felt his house rumble. For some reason he went to the window and looked across North Point Street, just in time to see a four-story apartment building
“crumble like an accordion.”
He points to it and shakes his head. The building is now resting atop a grey Ford Tempo. Literally. It looks as if the house had been built around the crushed car. The roof is now only 20 feet from the street.
“Are you saying that’s actually the second floor of the building?” someone asks Giannini.
“No, no,” he says, “that’s the fourth floor. The other three are crushed beneath it.” Sidewalks rise; signs sink
There are pictures like this across the bay area. Houses that have simply sunk into the earth. Sidewalks that rise two feet, to a point, as if an giant arrow is sticking up from underneath the concrete. Near that fallen house in the Marina, the street sign for North Point is buried in the asphalt, up to two inches of the sign itself, the way you would bury someone in the sand and just leave the head sticking out.
“How bad you get it, Vic?” asks Frank Battaglia, a thick- eyebrowed plumber who, he says, has been living here for years.
“Pretty bad,” comes the answer. “Everything upstairs is a wreck. Go up and see.”
Battaglia goes up into the house, then emerges a few minutes later.
“Hey, Vic. My wife would give anything if our house looked as good as yours right now. She’d kiss you, she’d be so happy.”
“She’d kiss you. You wanna see destroyed? My place is destroyed.”
“Yeah. I’ll show you destroyed. Come and see my place, you wanna see destroyed.”
They both turn and look at the apartments that are squashing the Ford Tempo. It is warm now, like the day it happened, warm and quiet. Were it not for the fire engines and countless police cars, it might be another perfect day near the bay.
“Hey, Frank,” says Giannini, not taking his eye off the destruction. “I won’t be needing those pipes fixed no more.” Some looting, more kindness
And the survival continues. Yes, there were stories of looting — surprisingly few — but there were also sterling examples of humanity, people opening their homes to strangers, cable cars riding through the streets, announcing: “If anyone needs a ride somewhere, to find their families, the transportation is free.” Restaurants donated food and plates to the Red Cross shelters. People came with blankets and blood for the hospitals.
There is something about disaster that draws people together, and there is something about it that makes us wonder why, what is the reason, who is trying to tell us something?
On Mission Street, as we leave the shelter, three street people are squatting against a building, their palms open. I drop some money in their hands and the middle one, a big man with wild white hair and beard and the leathery skin that says years on the streets, stuffs the money in his pocket, then points a finger.
“Did you feel the earthquake?” he says. I nod. He continues: “I was going out to buy a jug. And the street started shaking. And I said to myself, ‘Wait a minute. I’m not loaded yet.”‘
I chuckle a little. I really want to go. “You know what I say, can I tell you what I say?” he says, wagging a dirty finger. “I say that one day, the big one is gonna come, and this whole place will slide into the sea. We’ll all meet there, down below, no rich and no poor, just people.”
I nod and walk away. A police car rolls by, one of a million sirens you hear on these streets. It turns at the corner and disappears.
“We’re all gonna meet there,” he yells again, but by that point I am up the street and walking fast. CUTLINE Junior Gail sits with her belongings on a sidewalk in the Marina district of San Francisco on Wednesday. Her family was forced to move.