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Looking Back at Loma Prieta From Someone Who Was on the Bay Bridge

| September 4, 2013
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Collapsed section of Bay Bridge caused by 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. (Gary Weber/AFP/Getty Images)

Collapsed section of Bay Bridge caused by 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake (Gary Weber/AFP/Getty Images)

In the midst of all the hoopla about the new Bay Bridge, let’s take a moment to remember why it was built in the first place: the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which revealed just how seismically unstable the former span was. In that quake, a 50-foot section of the upper deck collapsed onto the lower deck.

Albany resident Heather MacClelland was on the bridge that day — and even all these years later, her story gives me chills. I invited her to take her first ride over the new bridge Tuesday and share her 24-year-old account.

On Oct. 17, 1989, MacClelland wanted to return a dress at Macy’s. And since the World Series was going on (remember that: Giants vs. A’s?), she figured there wouldn’t be much traffic. She was on the incline section of the bridge, heading toward San Francisco, when she felt some shaking. She didn’t think much of it.

“I thought my car was out of alignment, because I’d just had some tires replaced, and I thought they did something wrong,” she recalls. Some people pulled over, but she still didn’t think much of it. Apparently plenty of other people didn’t either, because “a  pack of cars” also kept going. Then “for some reason we all slowed down as a group, until we came to a stop,” she said, “but none of us knew why. It was almost more instinct than anything else.”

People started getting out of their cars. “What was really strange was how quiet it was. There was just this silence that you don’t hear in the city,” MacClelland said.

She said people were trying to get radio news, but all they heard was static, until MacClelland’s car radio finally tuned in a station.

The first thing they heard “was a woman screaming, ‘The Bay Bridge has collapsed! The Bay Bridge has collapsed!’ and we all started laughing because we were standing on it.” Then the radio announcer said the caller’s report was unconfirmed, but did state there had been an earthquake.

“And we all started looking at each other. ‘Oh, that’s what the shaking was.’

“Then the woman screams at him, ‘I’m watching it on TV, the Bay Bridge has collapsed!’ ” MacClelland said. “Everyone’s eyes got huge” as the reality sank in. “But the scary part was, we didn’t know which way to go. If (the bridge) had collapsed which direction do we go? So we all started looking at each other, like, what do we do next? And then headlights started coming back to us and we thought, OK, we go the other way.”

MacClelland was on the westbound section of the incline, but before the 50 foot section of upper-deck roadway had collapsed.

MacClelland said no one panicked. They all got turned around, then were heading back toward Oakland. What was also scary, she said, is that no cars were coming toward them.

“The Cypress (structure) had collapsed,” she recalled, referring to the double-decker freeway section that had collapsed onto itself. “I didn’t know that, and I was expecting when I turned around that I was going to have to dodge cars coming toward me, but there weren’t any cars coming toward us. … It had this very eerie feeling. I knew something really horrible had happened; I just didn’t know what it was.”

“It’s strange to be on the freeway backwards,” she continued. “I had to exit backwards off an entrance to get off the freeway. I got off as soon as I could because I didn’t know if people would come towards me or not.”

Once off the freeway, she went straight to a friend’s house. Just before heading for San Francisco, she had dropped off her friend, and she knew the woman would be worried. MacClelland’s friend burst into tears when MacClelland found her.

MacClelland said she feels safer on the new bridge and she likes the “clean and sleek” look of the new tower. But she likes the old bridge, too. “I’m going to be one of those old people going, ‘I remember when the bridge used to look like an erector set.’ ”

Katrina Schwartz contributed to this report.

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