Tremors is a book of earthquake haiku written in response to the 17 October 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that killed at least sixty people in the San Francisco area. At the time, I lived in Foster City, California, about halfway between San Francisco and San Jose. When the quake struck at 5:04 p.m., I was at work on the second story of a four-story office building in Foster City. Ceiling tiles were falling down among us as we rushed to door jambs to protect ourselves. Several window panes shattered.
The lights flashed and went out. A couple of computer monitors crashed to the floor, as did several bookcases and other unsecured items. My most profound memory of that moment, though, was the earthquake’s sound. It was an extremely deep vibrato—not a rumble like thunder, but a massive and precise “fizz” that seemed to come from everywhere all at once, both above and below you—even inside you.
And then, in just fifteen seconds, it was over. A friend had a handheld TV (imagine that, in 1989!) and, out in the parking lot, we saw immediate views of the collapsed section of the Oakland Bay Bridge, the chaos at the third game of the World Series at Candlestick Park, and later the devastation at the Cypress Structure freeway in Oakland, where most lives were lost. The World Series was between San Francisco and Oakland that year, and because the game was about to start when the earthquake hit, commentators later concluded that many people were already at home to watch the game. If that had not been the case, many more people would have been on the freeway in Oakland when it collapsed. Original estimates of deaths on the freeway turned out to be triple or quadruple what they actually were. And of course, none of us could forget that moment (I saw it later) when the breathless World Series announcer was interrupted in mid sentence by a loss of signal: “We’re having an earth—”
The days and weeks after the earthquake were intense and traumatic. Power was intermittent at first. Phone service was extremely limited. I was not able to stay in my own home for a couple of nights (all of my bookcases had toppled over, and the place was a mess, but the biggest problem was a shifted furnace in the crawl space and the danger of a gas leak and an explosion). Tap water ran dirty for weeks. Even the slightest of the frequent aftershocks would produce vertigo, or cause everyone to tense up. I had to visit the collapsed Cypress Structure freeway myself to see the devastation, and could not imagine how an entire car—and its occupant—could be squeezed down to just a few inches between massive slabs of concrete. On the roads still open, we drove well below the speed limit for months, pausing and then rushing to cross under overpasses. The Bay Bridge was closed, so extra traffic lines were marked across the San Mateo Bridge to allow traffic to drive on the shoulders. The rubble of collapsed buildings lingered for months in some places. Halloween decorations were still up in condemned buildings more than six months later (very odd to see ghosts and pumpkins still up in April). Within a year, photograph books that commemorated the event began to appear, but even several years later some buildings and freeways were still not rebuilt. The Loma Prieta earthquake, obviously, was a life-changing experience, but not one I would wish on anyone.
—20 December 2009