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Friday, October 16, 2009

Shakedown + 20: Remembering the Big Loma Prieta Quake. Today's Edition: Reporter's Shaky Hug at The 'Stick

Posted By on Fri, Oct 16, 2009 at 4:15 PM

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The moment was at hand. The honor guard was assembling. Our first World Series game was about to start. It was a nice fall evening, and we had good seats along the third base line. But something vital was missing: a hot dog and beer.

Four of us had flown in from Salt Lake City, where we worked in television and radio news. This was to be a much-needed break from deadline pressure to see the A's take on the Giants at home and maybe do a little carousing around San Francisco.

Having lost the coin flip, I went with a co-worker in search of the concession area. Emerging onto the outside ring of Candlestick, we ran into Lea, a friend from Utah who was now working for a satellite company in San Francisco.

Lea was an attractive woman, and when we hugged, the earth moved. Literally.

We swayed, but there was no music. I worried at first about my balance in mid-hug, but then a "thunk" and cracking sound followed. We looked at each other and started laughing, but we both knew it was an earthquake.

We could see the evidence on the hill just outside the stadium. Loose rock and dirt were cascading down, raising a small dust cloud.

It was confusing at first. We were all right, it didn't look like there was major structural damage, so certainly the game would go on. Back in the stands, people listening to the radio knew it was more serious than we could see. An announcement on the PA let us know the game was delayed, and I wondered whether I should move into work mode. When the blimp turned and headed for the Bay Bridge and reports of collapse came, I knew sports and fun were done. I waited as my friend Scott got on the phone and made a radio report to KSL, our station. How lucky was it to have four reporters on the scene of a huge story? And Utah lies in a serious quake zone of its own.

Remembering Lea's connection to a satellite company, I found her uploading reports for a Japanese television company that had leased her truck. I decided to go for it. So, I asked Lea, how about you let me use the camera and dish once the Japanese reporters are done? Remember the moment we just had in the tunnel?

Lea said no. She seemed to be a bit busy.

I came back and asked again. She used the new-fangled phone inside the truck and got permission, then got hold of our control room. I hopped up on top of the truck and the Japanese cameraman hooked me up with a microphone. So, right in the middle of a newscast in Salt Lake City, up popped its reporter via satellite. Lea was hanging outside of the cab with the phone and yelled, "you're on." It wasn't much of a report because all I knew was what I had seen and heard at the stadium, but it was all I could do.

The guys night out was on hold -- at least the relaxing part -- as we all spread out and went to work. I headed to Santa Cruz, where I became extremely attuned to aftershocks. I hooked up with earthquake experts from Utah who had flown in to see what they could learn.

After a few days of showing the tragedy and heroism and working 16-hour days, we decided it was time to leave the long-term reporting to the networks and locals. Scott and I found our way to the Oakland airport and sat silently in the bar with a number of volunteer firemen who had flown in to help and were returning home themselves. I saw their stares of exhaustion, and that look of wondering what the hell just happened.

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Tom Walsh


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