Stanford University Home

Stanford News Archive

Stanford Report, October 13, 1999

Stories of a campus shaken -- but not broken

The story of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake is often told in numbers: 6.9 on the Richter scale, 63 dead off campus (two-thirds of them in the collapsed Cypress Freeway structure), 3,757 injured, regional losses of $6 billion to $7 billion. But to get a feel for the impact of the Pretty Big One at Stanford, listen to the stories told by people who were actually here -- professors who opened doors only to find their laboratories and offices trashed; the student who had to bolt out of her classroom in mid-lecture, the anesthesiologist who was interrupted during an operation, or the wedding coordinator who had to break news of Memorial Church's closure to hundreds of disappointed couples. Together with photographs, their stories paint a riveting picture of a campus shaken -- but not broken.

Donald Kennedy, Bing Professor of Environmental Science, President Emeritus

I was on an airplane heading back from New York; my seatmate was talking to his secretary in Mill Valley. Suddenly, he put the phone down and said "My secretary just went under her desk." The plane was diverted to LAX. At 4 a.m. I finally contrived to contact my wife, Robin, at Hoover House, who confirmed earlier TV reports that although the campus had experienced damage there had been no loss of life.

At Hoover House we were being visited by our colleague Colin Pittendrigh, the ex-director of Hopkins Marine Station, who was awaiting surgery. As Robin returned there just after the quake, Stanford workers were turning off the gas, and Pittendrigh, having been evicted for that purpose, along with our daughter, was standing in the driveway. Asked what he wanted in the interim, he requested that a chair be placed for him just outside the front door, along with a bottle of scotch. Relieved at the survival of the house and its three occupants, Robin complied promptly.

Life after the quake was different all right. At work I began the business of deciding, with the superb staff people who had been preparing for just that, how the university should respond: re-housing students, rescheduling the university's work and beginning the heroic task of negotiating with FEMA. I suppose a similar urgent revision of priorities was taking place everywhere; we never had time to take notes.

And we had company: A dozen refugees from Roth House moved in to take every spare bed in Hoover House. They were wonderful, and over the better part of a month we made some new friends. Stanford is a resilient place, and it showed it then. Never was more good nature shown in the face of considerable inconvenience and discomfort than it was on this campus during the days and weeks following the earthquake. For me it was inspiring.


Kim Grose, A.B. '90

I was in an anthropology class as a senior: "Women and Development." The professor was a visiting professor from Europe somewhere, and when the classroom started rumbling, I remember seeing her face, mouth wide open like Munch's The Scream. It seemed to last forever; I had time to think to myself, "Oh my God, it is an earthquake. Wow, it is still going," then run out the door of Cubberley Education Building with the rest of the class, race across the little courtyard and onto the green between the Clock Tower and Meyer Library. The scariest part was getting onto the grass and feeling the earth still moving under my feet like a waterbed, and then looking up and watching that huge concrete block of Meyer Library swaying like a house of cards. I was certain it would crumble before my eyes.


Five days after Loma Prieta rocked the Bay Area, Stanford Stadium played host to a game between the New England Patriots and the San Francisco ‘49ers, who had been displaced from their home stadium at Candlestick Park. To aid quake victims, fans brought along food, clothing, blankets and cash for the American Red Cross.


Maggie Kimball, University Archivist

I had just met with a history class in Green Library West's Barchas Room. Most students had exited, but there was one who stayed behind to ask questions. There was a Socrates terminal located just outside the main room on a counter, and I was showing her how it worked when the earthquake hit. The student's first inclination was to get out, but I urged her to get underneath the counter, and then I started toward the reading room. I only got as far as the wall next to the door, and that's where I stayed. Afterward it looked as if it had been snowing in the rotunda, the plaster dust was that heavy.

Later, the head of the department and I walked the entire department from the basement to the top, and that's when the extent of the damage became clear. Our collections had done pretty well, but the building was in serious trouble . . . we were seeing daylight through the corners of the walls. The next day, the engineers came through and red-tagged the building and we knew we would have to move the whole collection out. The emotional aftermath was difficult.


Paul Berg, Cahill Professor in Cancer Research and of Biochemistry, emeritus

I was on the top floor of the recently opened Beckman Center for Molecular and Genetic Medicine. The corridor in which I was standing is quite wide, perhaps 9 feet across, but I was quickly thrown from one wall to the other and it seemed not to let up. I rounded up those who were nearby and we started down the stairwell amidst flying dust and plaster, all the while noticing the cracks in the walls.

On reaching the first floor, we all spilled out into the surrounding walks and waited for the shaking to stop. Then I realized that the manuscript and computer tapes for a textbook I had been working on for the previous eight years were still in the building. I was not about to risk losing them, so I zipped back into my ground floor office, gathered up what I sought and scooted out promptly.

When we were allowed into the building hours later, the labs and offices on the fourth floor were a shambles; glassware had come off the shelves, floors were littered with liquids and broken glass, file cabinets and refrigerators had slid across the room. But the rooms were intact."


In the Durand Building, professors and staff returned to find their offices in complete disarray.


Robert Gregg, Moore Professor of Religious Studies, former dean of the chapel

I was in my Round Room office trying to calm a doctoral student who was about to take her oral exams. When the earthquake hit, we both stood up, and I tried to shield her from the falling plaster with my arms. Then I realized that wasn't going to do any good, so we both got under the doorway and just looked at each other. After the tremor stopped, I said to her, "Doesn't this bring your academic challenge on Friday into sharp perspective?" "Yes, it does," she replied. "I'm getting out of here."


John Rickford, Martin Luther King Jr. Centennial professor and professor of linguistics

I was chairing a search committee for the director of African and Afro-American Studies, and we were meeting in Building 30. I had promised the committee that we would finish at 5 p.m., but we went over this -- we joked later that the earthquake was God's retribution -- and at 5:04 p.m., the shaking began, accompanied by a growling, snarling sound that I had never heard or experienced and found quite startling.

I got up and stood under an overhang, which I thought would offer some protection. But as the shaking continued and fluorescent bulbs began falling from the ceiling fixtures with a loud "pop," I realized this was not safe enough, and quickly joined the rest of the committee, including David Abernethy and Sylvia Wynter, under the heavy table around which we had been meeting. There we cowered until the shaking and the falling dust seemed to stop, and then we emerged, all shaken ourselves.

Passing debris from broken light fixtures and fallen bricks along the way, I raced back to Arroyo Hall, where my wife, Angela, and I were resident fellows at the time. Luckily my family was safe, as were the 90 students in the dorm. But many of them were frightened, a few terrified, by this unprecedented experience. As we huddled in the open outside the dorm -- chattering nervously and excitedly, worrying about water and supplies, organizing into mobilization teams per prior Res Ed training, and listening on our transistor radios to breaking news of the Bay Bridge being down and the pancaked freeway in Oakland -- one or two students began to cry, and it was clear that we would have to look out for people's emotional as well as physical well-being.


Leah Kaplan, former university ombudsperson and former director, Stanford Help Center

The greatest damage of the quake was not physical but psychological. In the five weeks following the earthquake, we saw 800 faculty and staff in group meetings and individual sessions. Some people were just thrown for a loop. The stress was especially evident among those students, faculty and staff who had to be moved out of quake-damaged buildings. Some of those staffs were very cohesive, almost like a family. They were wishing they could be back together again.


Betsy Koester, wedding coordinator, Stanford Memorial Church

I was in my upstairs office at Memorial Church talking on the phone to a bride who planned to be married later on in the year. Alas, she was one of the almost 200 brides whom I had to contact in the following weeks with the sad news that their wedding would not take place at Memorial Church. Four weddings were scheduled for the following Saturday. We convened and determined that the best plan of action would be to rent a tent with chairs and set them up in the Inner Quad to accommodate the couples being married. Three couples decided to hold their wedding where they planned to have the reception. One went ahead with their ceremony in the center Quad.


Dr. Frank H. Sarnquist, professor of anesthesia

The tough, veteran nurse called it. "Earthquake," she said, with the same matter-of-fact tone she used with any operating room disaster. "This is a big one." I told my resident at the head of the OR table to hold on to the patient, and the surgeon braced the patient at the chest level. As the movement of the building increased, the lights failed and we swayed in the total darkness of the windowless room. Emergency power switched on, the building came to rest, and we continued with the case.

As the medical director of the operating rooms, I was concerned about other patients and the state of the suite. When I was certain that the life support systems were working adequately in our room, I went to the other OR in use, where a child was having brain surgery. This team [thought] that the event had been caused by the LifeFlight helicopter crashing into the landing zone directly above the OR on the roof of the building. They, too, had suspended surgery for the short interruption and were now continuing. I went to the OR waiting area, where I reassured the child's parents that all was well and that the surgery was progressing.

The ORs then went into full disaster mode, calling in all available help, checking the power, gas and electrical systems, and preparing for a rush of victims of the quake. This was done effectively, and we stood ready to care for a large number of patients. As it turned out, only one patient eventually came to the Stanford operating rooms that evening as a result of an injury caused by the seismic event. But it was one of the best drills we have had.


Marv Herrington, director Department of Public Safety

I was driving along Campus Drive. As I paused at a stop sign, I thought someone struck my car from behind. It dawned on me that I was experiencing an earthquake when I noticed the street light poles bending from side to side. I made a U-turn and returned to the Stanford Police Department, where we activated the Emergency Operations Center and the Emergency Operations Plan.

We were fortunate on several counts. The weather was mild. We had approximately two hours of daylight left. My friend, Professor Haresh Shah, came and agreed to inspect our residential buildings and give us his opinion on the safety level. Later, one of the police officers who accompanied Shah on his inspection tour described in awe how Shah carefully examined the first few buildings, and then, based on those observations, was able to predict where damage was likely to appear in the rest of the structures. This inspection allowed us to use most of our residential buildings that night, confident that they were structurally safe.

Another memory: One of my sergeants reported that a faculty member was demanding to be allowed into his building, which had been damaged and was sealed and guarded. The sergeant had tried to reason with the professor to no avail; he was going to have to arrest this person to prevent him from entering the building by force. I envisioned this scene being repeated -- forcing me to tie up valuable resources, to say nothing of the criticism we would receive for arresting our faculty -- so I instructed my sergeant to tell the professor to give us his identification and the name of his next of kin before entering the building, and advise him that we would not endanger rescue workers on his behalf. A few minutes later the sergeant reported that the professor had reconsidered and decided to wait until the building was declared safe. At that moment, I became convinced that Stanford faculty members were truly as bright as advertised.


Falling concrete from the Old Chemistry Building crushed this Ford Granada just seconds after its driver, a chemistry graduate student, had gotten out. The 1903 building, condemned in the mid-1980s for seismic safety reasons, is one of the few damaged buildings on campus that has not been restored since the earthquake.


Wanda Corn, professor of art and former acting director, Stanford Museum

I was in the museum just finishing a staff meeting. It was a few minutes after 5 p.m., and the museum had closed for the day. When the rumbling began, we all dove for cover, some under tables; I took a doorway. The roll and pitch of the 1891 building was like that on an amusement park ride; the large mirror on the wall sloshed from one side to the other and the metal file cabinets vibrated like castanets; my palms get damp just recalling it.

We exited the building promptly after the tremors stopped. While walking briskly to get outside, we saw the damage to the museum: deep cracks and fissures in the walls, plaster on the floors. . . . One museum staffer, Frank Kommer, the man responsible for installing the permanent exhibitions, wanted to walk through the building to assess the damage and to make sure that windows and doors were still secure, in the event someone were to take advantage of the crisis and try to enter the building. He went inside and we looked at our watches, telling him to be back out in no more than 15 minutes. Little aftershocks already were pulsing through the pavement and we all feared there would be another big one. He got back out safely and reported that damage [to the collections] was moderate given the possibilities. Over the years he had secured all the fragile pots, sculptures and ceramics with earthquakes in mind, but never had his installations tested. He was pleased that his handiwork had held.

The next morning we picnicked with the full staff on the front lawn and waited for the official inspection team to arrive. After lunch, we went behind the yellow emergency tape and took a photograph of the museum staff, all in hard hats, standing on the steps of the museum entrance. Later that day, I accompanied the inspection crew onto the roof of the museum where we discovered that a balustrade at the top of the building had been significantly damaged and was just waiting for a good shake to throw huge pieces of stone onto the steps and museum grounds. How stupid we had all been to picnic on the lawn and mount the steps of the museum for a photo-op!

The Loma Prieta earthquake cost us the use of the museum for a decade, but it had a silver lining. It made us all appreciate the original building, its collections and its absence. In time, the university committed itself to rebuilding and enlarging the building; funds were raised and it was transformed into a state-of-the-art facility that reopened last January.

P.S. A good and true Loma Prieta story: The late art professor Al Elsen was with his students in the seminar room of Cummings Art Building, right next to Hoover Tower. As everyone got under the table together to ride out the quake, one of the students cried out in despair, "What if Hoover Tower falls on us?" To calm her, Elsen responded: "Don't worry, Hoover Tower would never fall to the left." SR

Photos: News Service Archives