SAN FRANCISCO — Everything he owns is lying at his feet, a bag of clothes, a bag of cassette tapes, and an electric guitar, wrapped in plastic. “How long before they get us some place to live?” he asks. He stares at the other victims in the shelter, lying on cots and gulping Red Cross coffee.
Roman Jones, a thin young musician with wire-rim glasses, was about to step into the shower when the earth opened Tuesday afternoon. The floor began to rumble. The pictures began to shake. Outside on Sixth Street, a crack split the asphalt, and water began to spurt from it — like blood from an open wound.
“What the hell is going on?” Jones yelled to his roommate, Jeff Reynolds.
Reynolds said, “Run!”
Suddenly, the ceiling fell in 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,” Jones says, “the worse it seemed to get.”
He tugs on his shirt and sighs. An hour ago, he had sneaked into the building — under the yellow police barriers — and grabbed the remains of his life. And now he waits here, in the dimly lit Moscone Center, which is usually reserved for conventions and concerts but today is swallowing the homeless, the deserted, the people whose buildings are cracked in half or sunk into the sidewalk.
It is the morning after the night they can never forget, the earthquake, the growling of the planet. And it is not over. Here, they talk about the Anglo Hotel, their former home, which rose from the sidewalk at least six inches. Across the bay, on the Oakland side, rescuers are plowing through the concrete of I-880, which collapsed during rush hour. Dogs are sniffing for survivors. In a nearby town, six people sit holding hands, a silent vigil for a friend they believe is still alive, trapped in a building.
The horror. The survival. How can you make sense of an earthquake? What strikes you most as you travel these shaken streets is how such an awesome force could be both so fast and so fickle. It came during a perfectly glorious afternoon — warm sun, warm breeze — and in 15 seconds, it set this area back years, maybe longer. It razed some buildings to rubble, and left others untouched. It amused some residents, like a roller coaster ride, and forced others to drive off bridges to their death.
“I’m from Philadelphia originally, man,” says Jones, as he sits down for the long wait. “I don’t need this bleep. Damn. I was just getting my life together.” Bee antennas for lights
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 to cover baseball, a World Series, and suddenly, the stadium shook and the place was evacuated and here 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 lugged out two sacks of electric bee antennas — the kind John Belushi used to wear on “Saturday Night Live” — and because they lit up, providing two dots of green light, enough to see the face in front of you, hundreds of souls were soon walking San Francisco with little bee antennas on their heads.
Crazy. It was paradise gone mad, a lullaby of a city now 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, or a 50-foot section of the upper-level Bay Bridge collapsed through to the lower level — would somehow soften in the morning light. Body count swells
Instead, the images grew starker in the daytime, more real. The body count began to swell as police and fire reports came in. At least 253 lost in the I-880 collapse. Two killed in a shopping mall crumble in Santa Cruz. One man killed on the roads when horses broke free from a trailer and smacked into his car.
“I saw five bodies myself,” said Ronnie McAuliffe, a bearded man with a Chicago Cubs cap who lives in the Mission District. “A wall of a building over near Townsend Street 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 them out.”
He sighed, then shook his head.
“They were dead, all right. Police came and took them.”
California, falling down. All around the bay area Tuesday, people were walking, no particular destination, just walking, looking, seeing cracks in the middle of a townhouse and garage doors smashed into the cars beneath them. It was arbitrary destruction, as if the devil said, “Eenie-meenie-miney
. . . 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 lost when the quake broke the mains.
Vic Giannini, a 71-year-old retiree, was watching TV 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 now and scratches his white hair. It is the strangest thing you ever saw. The building is collapsed and resting atop a gray Ford Tempo. It looks as if the house had been built around the crushed car. The roof is only 20 feet from the sidewalk.
“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.” Buildings sink; sidewalks rise
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 beneath the concrete. Hotel lobbies lit by candlelight; stranded guests sleeping on the couches. Cars hanging off bridges.
California, falling down.
“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 gray Ford. It is warm now, like the day it happened, warm and quiet. Were it not for the distant fire engines, it might be another perfect day.
“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? Can it really be that this stuff just happens? You live here, you take your chances?
Outside the shelter, on Mission Street, 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 deep blue eyes and wild white hair stuffs the money in his pocket.
“Did you feel the earthquake?” he says. “I was going out to buy a jug of wine. And the street started shaking. And I said to myself, ‘Wait a minute. I’m not loaded yet.’ “
He wags a finger. “You know what I say? 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 stare at him and walk away. A police car rolls by, and up ahead is another yellow zone, another sunken building, another life to rebuild.
“We’re all gonna meet there,” the crazy man 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.