Twenty years ago today at 5:04 p.m., three friends and I were seated in Section 2, Row 19 of the upper deck at Candlestick Park, right behind (albeit well above) home plate. This put us directly under a cement canopy around the rim of the ballpark.


I mention that because five years or so earlier, as a greenhorn reporter in San Francisco, I had written a story about a city-funded seismic report about that overhang. The report said that it wouldn’t hold up in a strong earthquake. As I recall, the city didn’t have the money to do the seismic upgrade, but then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein was determined to find it.


I didn’t think about that story again until 5:04 p.m. Oct. 17, 1989 when that overhang began flapping like a bedsheet in the breeze – and the world suddenly felt like a porch swing. As my friends held on to the seats in front of them and studied what was happening out on the field, I was looking overhead. I remember thinking, calmly, “I should have updated that story.”


As it turns out, Feinstein and the city had indeed found the money to seismically upgrade that overhang. It’s one of those rare moments when I can say that a mundane municipal government budgetary decision probably saved my life – and those of many others.


Which is one of the things that often gets overlooked in coverage about the 1989 earthquake. Yes, the quake broke the Bay Bridge, made kindling of the Marina District, collapsed the Cypress Structure in Oakland and caused up to $10 billion damage.

But what’s amazing is that only 67 people died. That is remarkable. (If you recall, first news reports claimed deaths would be in the “thousands.”)


If it had been anywhere else, it might have been. A similar-sized quake hit a year earlier in Armenia claiming more than 25,000 lives. A magnitude 6.6 quake (smaller than the magnitude 6.9 of Oct. 17) hit in Iran 2003 claiming 30,000 lives.


The fact is that thousands of lives were probably saved in 1989 – and would be saved again today if the same thing happened — because of tough seismic laws, design rules and hard-fought budgetary battles that someone probably at tought at the time was boring. Maybe even some reporter.


But at 5:04 p.m. that day, I appreciated those meetings and the decisions that came from them, or at least one. And that’s a story that’s probably worth updating.


– Paul Gullixson