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Friday, October 16, 2009

Shakedown + 20: Remembering the Big Loma Prieta Quake. Today's Edition: Fireman's Caffeinated Memories

Posted By on Fri, Oct 16, 2009 at 6:30 AM

click to enlarge John Hanley
  • John Hanley
When the earthquake hit, the kids at the playground didn't think much of it. In fact, when you're on the jungle gym, a little bit of rumbling only adds to the fun. But when the parents started shrieking, the toddlers quickly gathered that something was horribly wrong and joined in the cacophony.

On Oct. 17, 1989, John Hanley was a 33-year-old fireman taking his then-2-year-old son, Connor, to the park. But by the time his fellow young parents began yipping, Hanley was already in a far-off place. He was, mentally, at work. And, soon, he'd be there physically as well. He quickly dropped off Connor at the family's Richmond District home -- Hanley is still kicking himself that he did not bother to check if his own house was structurally sound (it was) -- and motored toward his firehouse in North Beach. "My sole thought was to get in this fight," recalls Hanley, now the head of the city's firefighters union.

Hanley and a couple of fellow firefighters picked up their "turnouts" -- the big coat, oversize pants and helmet -- jumped in a pickup truck, and sped to the Marina to do whatever they could. At some point, the firemen downed the first of an oceanful of coffee that would sustain them for days on end.

John Hanley
  • John Hanley
"As a kid you look at pictures of Berlin in the war. And, you know, [the Marina] sort of looked like Berlin after the bombing," recalls Hanley. "On certain blocks the buildings were just bent sideways and falling over."

Hanley and his crew were soon dispatched to start roaming through Marina apartment buildings, searching for denizens in distress. He didn't find any -- most folks, in his estimation, were stumbling about outside in a daze re-enacting Dawn of the Dead. But he still recalls the piles and piles of treasured possessions littered across apartment floors as if a bomb had gone off. In a sense, one had.

After a bit more coffee, Hanley and his colleagues were dispatched to jump on Engine No. 28 and "respond to boxes [fire alarms] or the smell of smoke." There were plenty of both, as you can imagine, and the firefighters were following gas odors all night long. One gas-reeking building bleeds into another after 20 years, but two structures do stick out in Hanley's mind: A house on Stockton Street that had a cottage in the back that had burst into flames and a brick building on Bluxome that caved in and crushed several people to death.

Hanley didn't sleep at all for well over 24 hours, then managed two hours of rest a day for the better part of a week while responding to legions of gas leaks. He credits his staying power to caffeine, adrenyline, and being just 33 at the time.

A few memories have withstood the test of time. One is "old ladies, just in shock, wandering around the Marina. You'd say, 'Hey lady, do you know where you're going?'"

Hanley and his colleagues sent shaken city dwellers to firehouses, which stood out as bright oases in the dark city (they had generators). The firehouses also had working phone service. At Station No. 8 on Bluxome, "There must have been 50 people in there. They felt safe. And they had quite an expensive phone bill that night."

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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