15 seconds that changed the San Francisco Bay Area: Devastation of the 1989 quake remembered

On the 33rd anniversary of the deadly Loma Prieta earthquake, the Bay Area still remembers the panic. The quake claimed 63 lives across the area.

The San Francisco Bay Area was celebrating on October 17, 1989, as both home teams faced off against each other in Game 3 of the World Series. The mood lasted until 5:04 p.m. when the Loma Prieta earthquake, a 6.5 magnitude, shook for 15 seconds and changed the Bay Area forever.

Fans and players fled Candlestick Park, some screaming and some in shock. About 25 million viewers watched and heard the panic as the TV broadcast flickered and failed. When the network came back on the air, sports reporters were turned into news reporters telling the world the tragedy unfolding. 

"The sound of the quake in the stadium was like a huge freight train passing, and my son clutched at my waist as the place rocked and rolled," recalled a local who was at the baseball game on KTVU FOX 2’s Facebook site. "It took several hours before we could leave the parking lot for the nerve-wracking drive across the San Mateo Bridge and home to Dublin." 

Over a mile of the upper deck of the two-story Cypress Viaduct of I-880 collapsed on the lower level in Oakland. Pictures capture bystanders trying to pull drivers and passengers, crushed and trapped, from cars. On that stretch of highway alone, 41 people died.


Crews extricated Buck Helm from the pancaked freeway four days after its collapse. He later died of his injuries.

KTVU FOX 2’s Ken Wayne caught up with his son and ex-wife years later at a memorial. 

"It's still painful," Lorrie Helm told him. "It still brings back a lot of memories."

"People looking over the edge. Cars that had gone off the road bed and augured into the ground," former Oakland Deputy Fire Chief Mark Hoffman told KTVU FOX 2. "Car roofs had collapsed down into window sills of the doors. That was where, okay, maybe some would survive. Some people had, and some hadn't." 

He said after three decades, he still vividly remembers a doctor amputating a boy’s leg to free him from the wreckage.

A section of the two-story Bay Bridge also collapsed onto the lower level. So easy to see from a helicopter, but drivers on the bridge had no idea what to suspect 190 feet above the water.

Only one person died on the Bay Bridge, but the quake claimed 63 lives in total across the area.

"The area liquefied," wrote the California Geological Survey

According to the California Geologic Survey, the ground liquefied, destroying 35 buildings in the high-priced Marina District. The landfill that the neighborhood was built upon acted like a fluid in the shaking.

The area was originally a lagoon, filled in by rubble from the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. The poor soils increased the shaking and eventually failed.


Gas pipelines broke and ignited fires across San Francisco. Fires in the Marina District burned for days. The shaking also ruptured water mains, making firefighting a challenge.

Towns like Santa Cruz and Watsonville, closer to the epicenter, crumbled. Officials created tent cities for over 12,000 people.

Loma Prieta changed building codes

"The severe $6 billion dollar economic loss and unexpectedly high for a moderate distant event initiating a new effort to control building damage through performance based engineering," the California Survey wrote in support of the Seismic Hazards Mapping Act

The damage prompted the USGS to redraw hazard maps, the California Department of Transportation to harden bridge and roadway requirements and building departments to write stricter codes.

San Andreas Fault

The epicenter was on the San Andreas Fault, 56 miles south of San Francisco and 11 miles deep. More than 18,000 homes were damaged, and 963 were destroyed.


"There is still a 50 percent chance for one or more magnitude 7.0 earthquakes in the San Francisco Bay Area in the next 30 years, and the probability of a repeat of the 1906 quake is significant," warns the California Department of Conservation.

Play ball

Ten days after the quake, the Oakland Athletics took on the Giants again at Candlestick Park. The Athletics swept the series in a match that the Bay Area would never forget.