Douglas Thmopson - Author and International Journalist

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San Francisco Earth Quake - Sandwich of Death

Daily Express 19th October 1989

THE HEART has gone out of San Francisco. The terrible earth­quake which has shattered the city by the bay leaves 272 dead for certain.

Hundreds more are feared to have perished. They lie buried in the rubble of Interstate Highway 880 and in ruined buildings.

The two-tier highway became a sandwich of death. The top tier came crashing down onto the bottom, crushing cars to 18 inches thick and leaving those inside with no chance of living.

Day dawned deathly. The clouds of dust from destroyed buildings began to settle, but fires still burned.

And San Francisco, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, began to count the cost of the disaster caused by a shock hitting 6.9 on the Richter scale.

Experts last night estimated that the damage will cost between one and five billion dollars, or £3.2 billion at the highest level.

The cost in human life and injury is impossible to assess or even contemplate without emotion. In addition to the deaths — it may be many days before the full toll is known — there are 500 known injuries and more may be still alive in the rubble.

President Bush declared the city a disaster area as Mrs Thatcher and Russia's Mikhai Gorbachev offered help. The Pope sent a message of sympathy.


The U.S. National Guard was called in to stop muggings and looting as the darkened city collapsed into chaos. Teenage gangs armed with knives and baseball bats roamed along smart shopping arcades plundering from the smashed windows and mugging whole families as they walked home.

One victim said: "We left our car and we were taken for every cent we carried.
"It was bedlam. Shop windows were broken and everything that could be vandalised was smashed to smithereens.
"At one point I saw a team armed with baseball bats threatening an old couple for the rings on their fingers. It was incredible.
The roof of a shopping centre collapsed in San Jose and people were trapped inside the building. The shock also caused a 50-car pile-up on a major crossroads in the city.
Carolyn Thomas was in her office downtown when the earthquake struck.
"When the shaking stopped — it seemed to go on for minutes — we ran to the stairwell.
"It wasn't there. It had collapsed and we had a terrifying climb down an eight-storey fire department ladder.
"The building had swayed and.the walls jerked and cracked."

Dawn did not make the disaster any easier to accept. There was glass underfoot and rubble all around the corner of Union Street and Grand Street in downtown Oakland where rescuers set about trying to comprehend the nightmare of the concrete coffin that crushed and maimed and killed hundreds of people.
Police officer Blake Holsworth's face was ashen, his hands cut and bruised.
He had been inside the "sandwich" all night, hauling out survivors. He shook as he talked of the panic and the fear and the rush trying to find people alive in the crush of concrete.
"How many? There were scores of. dead and I'm still counting the survivors," he said.
"We got one man out from a Mercedes that had been crushed into a couple of feet thick. All he had was a broken ankle. He was lucky.


"There were dead in many cars and lying in the debris. It was dark and cold and terrifying.
"It was all the worst fears because it could have so easily have been you or your family.
"Every time we heard a rumble we thought it was happening again."
Sugan Kato was on the highway when she felt the rolling and cars in front of her vanished. She slammed on the brakes.
"I could see people alive and screaming. I don't know how anyone could have survived," she said.

Last night helicopters buzzed over the crumpled highway which is the main road into San Francisco from Oakland. The upper level of the highway was tilted in parts and pitched forward tike a roller coaster. At some points on the road you could not see the daylight between the upper and lower decks. Pillars and reinforcing rods lay around like plates of spaghetti.
"You could hear it crunching down but you couldn't see anything, it was just a big white cloud," said Leroy FitzGerald, who works at a nearby garage. "You could hear people screaming for help."

Volunteer task forces backed up the authorities and private firms sup­plied ladders and fork lift trucks. Rescuers said it was all a mad, crazy panic to try to save as many lives as possible. The injured were moved in make­shift military buses with "Emergency" spray-painted in big letters on their sides. Firefighters tried to get equipment in to help the rescue attempts but they were constantly frustrated by darkness and the narrow spaces in which they were forced to work.


Across the Bay Bridge, which lost a 50 ft section in the quake, the city of San Francisco itself was also trying to get back on its feet again. The authorities were feverishly working to restore power and communications.

There were blazes everywhere, bursting water mains and trapped people.
Every 12 minutes on the radio Earthquake Awareness Warnings announced: "The shaking may not be over. Stay home. Don't go on the streets."

People were also warned against wasting water and eating contaminated food.

The U.S. Defense Department ordered Navy ships, helicopters, military police and construction engineers to the area. A Navy construction battalion with heavy-lift equipment was already at work yesterday helping rescue efforts. A frigate was standing by in San Francisco Bay to pump water for fire­men if necessary. Helicopters from two other Navy ships were ferrying supplies and injured.

Military policemen from a military base in downtown San Francisco were assisting local police. Billions of federal dollars will be released to help victims and their families and launch a rebuilding programme. President Bush stayed up most of the night monitoring reports from the Bay area and signed a disaster relief declaration at first light.
"I want the citizens of San Francisco Bay to know that our hearts are with them as they face this terrible tragedy," he said. "Words can't adequately convey our sad­ness."
He said he would probably fly to the area but added: "I don't want to get in the way. The last thing we want to do is clutter things up."

Bush has acted far more swiftly to meet the Bay area needs than he did to help those on the East Coast ravaged by Hurricane Hugo a few weeks ago.
He was keenly criticised for that tardiness, and yesterday he pointed out that he had asked Vice President Dan Quayle, who was in California, to helicopter around the area.
"We're working with state and local officials to assure the relief effort is coordinated and effective as possible," he said. . Mr Bush praised relief organisations, especially the Red Cross, and urged Americans to support them.


And he said the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was criticised over the response to Hugo, was doing a good job. "They're out front and they're trying to respond," he said.
From Moscow, President Gorbachev sent condolences and the Soviet ambassador to Washington was told to offer relief aid.
A Russian foreign ministry official said his countrymen clearly under­stood American grief after their own Armenian earthquake which killed 25,000 less than a year ago.
Gennady Gerasimov said: "For the Soviet people, who experienced not long ago the pain of loss from the catastrophe in Armenia, the feelings of grief that the American people are feeling today are especially close and understandable."
If the Soviets do help the victims of an American quake it would be a first. Millions of U.S. dollars poured into Armenia with aid from other countries.
Mrs Thatcher sent a message to President Bush expressing her distress.
The Prime Minister, who is at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Kuala Lumpur, told Mr Bush: "Reports are reaching us of the earthquake in San Francisco bringing heavy damage and loss of life.
"I am very distressed indeed to hear of what is clearly a major disaster and hasten to send my deepest sympathy to you and all those who have suffered.
"Please let me know if there is any­thing at all which we can do to help."
Thousands of Californians now face huge financial bills. Only about one in five homeowners have earth­quake insurance because of the high cost of premiums.
But whatever the cost in dollars, the, earthquake has cost San Francisans more. The heart has left their city and their golden sun will shine a little colder from now on.

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