Crippling quake opened avenues

When Art and Sherry Agnos walk their chocolate Labrador from their Potrero Hill home to the Ferry Building farmers market on weekends, the former mayor and his wife take the waterfront route, passing AT&T Park and following the T-Third Street light-rail track to the Bay Bridge.

The couple has a special appreciation for this sunny, open, Bay-facing roadway: Two decades ago, a deadly earthquake gave Art Agnos, then mayor, the unlikely opportunity to create it.

Transformation of the waterfront from a freeway-shaded thoroughfare to the pedestrian-oriented stretch it is today gained traction at 5:04 p.m. Oct. 17, 1989, when the Loma Prieta earthquake rocked The City.

The eyes of the world were already on the Bay Area when the 6.9-magnitude temblor hit, with television viewers tuning in to watch the third game of the World Series between the Giants and A’s that was being played at Candlestick Park.

“I tell you what, we’re having an earthq—” TV announcer Al Michaels said before the live feed cut out.

Agnos, who was 21 months into his term, was riding in the mayoral car and just pulling into a stadium parking lot when the ground moved.

“I felt the car shake rather strongly and said to my bodyguard, ‘Do we have a flat tire? A couple flat tires or what?’” Agnos told The Examiner. “She said, ‘No, I think we had an earthquake.’”

It wasn’t until he was inside Candlestick Park — where players were helping loved ones from the stands and fans were still milling around — that Agnos received word about some of the damage, including the collapse of a portion of the Bay Bridge.

As shaking from the quake, which was centered 56 miles south of San Francisco, spread outward, it damaged homes, buildings and roadways, including the double-decker Embarcadero Freeway that ran along the waterfront from the Bay Bridge to North Beach.

Agnos used the damage from the quake as a reason to move ahead with plans to raze the overhead freeway and replace it with a surface-level street, even though voters just years earlier had decided against tearing it down.

The demolition — which was eventually used by Agnos’ political rivals in defeating the former state Assembly member during his 1992 re-election bid for mayor — was completed, but not before a fight from several groups.

After heavy lobbying against the demolition — including from Chinatown merchants who wanted to ensure access to the area for customers — the Board of Supervisors voted 6-5 to move ahead with tearing down the freeway.

The removal in 1991 led to the revitalization of the waterfront, including the restoration of the Ferry Building, the construction of AT&T Park and the burgeoning of the Mission Bay neighborhood.

“Would I do it again?” Agnos said. “In a heartbeat.”

“It’s been 18 years since I left office,” he said. “What I do have is the memory that I left The City better than I found it. All I have to do is walk down that Embarcadero and I see it.

“I see thousands of San Franciscans and thousands of tourists enjoying a part of The City they never had until I said, ‘We’re tearing it down.’”

Following disaster, ‘instincts’ took the reins

In the aftermath of the deadly Loma Prieta earthquake, then-Mayor Art Agnos said he abandoned The City’s emergency plan and relied on his instincts to deal with the disaster.

With traffic snarled due to collapsed roadways and power outages, a convoy of motorcycle-riding police officers cleared a path for Agnos’ car from the canceled World Series game at Candlestick Park to an emergency operations center near City Hall.

When he arrived, Agnos was told the disaster coordinator had collapsed and been hospitalized. Agnos was handed a large, loose-leaf binder filled with emergency procedures.

“I had only been mayor for a year and the last thing on my mind was an earthquake,” Agnos told The Examiner. “We hadn’t gone through any kind of disaster protocols or preparedness or anything. I didn’t have time to be looking at a loose-leaf binder, so I just put it aside and started going with my instincts.”

The damage in The City included power outages, the collapse of a SoMa building facade that killed five people, homes crumpling and burning into the soft sand and landfill of the Marina district, and sections of freeways that bowed and cracked.

Agnos declared a state of emergency, arranged for soldiers from the Presidio to be dispatched to the Marina and elsewhere, and ordered all bars to close.

Agnos said law and order generally prevailed in San Francisco, although one shooting death and some looting were reported amid the chaos.

Shaken and rattled

The Loma Prieta earthquake struck in the Santa Cruz Mountains at 5:04 p.m. Oct. 17, 1989.

6.9 Magnitude of quake
56 miles Distance from epicenter to San Francisco
57 People directly killed by quake
6 People indirectly killed by quake
3,757 People who reported injuries
12,000 People left homeless
$6B to $10B Estimated property damage in Northern California
80 Bridges damaged in Northern California
$1.8B Estimated damage to roads and freeways

Fine points of temblor

Name: Loma Prieta is a peak in the Santa Cruz Mountains where the epicenter was located.
Location: The actual epicenter is located at 37 degrees 4 minutes north latitude and 121 degrees 88 minutes west longitude.
Slippage: The Pacific and North American tectonic plates slipped as much as 7 feet along the San Andreas fault.
Depth: Fault sliding occurred 11 miles underground and was not visible on the surface.

Source: U.S. Geological Survey

Temblor tidbit: The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake was the first major event to take place along the San Andreas fault following the 1906 earthquake. The Loma Prieta quake’s magnitude was 6.9. And though an exact measurement of the 1906 earthquake is not available, it’s been estimated at somewhere around magnitude 7.9.

For the Examiner's complete coverage of the Loma Prieta anniversary, please go to

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