Image: Aerial image of the collapsed Cypress Structure in Oakland (USGS)
The engineer who came to take a look at my house said to me lightly, “Well, I wouldn’t trust it in a major earthquake, and you really ought to get that foundation fixed, but it isn’t an emergency.” I had called her in to check out a crack in our basement wall. That conversation took place early in October, 1989.
When the shaking began, I was working in my home office. One child was upstairs playing, and the older, a first grader, was chatting with a friend on the kitchen telephone. The longest 19 seconds of my life began with that jolt. All I could think was that I had to get the children out of that house.
I scrambled to the kitchen, snatched the phone out of Aaron’s hand, and threw him out the front door onto the lawn. Then I ran back to get Jim. I remember that the frame of the house was groaning, and the china cabinet was shuffling away from the wall in the dining room. Jim was strolling down the stairs, singing, and I grabbed him up. We ran out into the yard just as the shaking stopped.
Car alarms were going off. A few people came out of the houses, looking around. I clutched my children and whispered to the house, “OK, you can fall down now.” It didn’t, but it would be two years before the repairs were finished just in time for the Oakland Hills Fire.
That was the beginning of a long, tense evening. Linda was missing. This was before cell phones, and she should have been on her commute home from SFO. My heart flipped over when the radio said that the Bay Bridge was “down.” It would be more hours before we heard about the horror of the Cypress Structure.
Turns out, Linda had an appointment at the eye doctor’s, and had just had her eyes dilated. It was a while before she could see well enough to drive home. We were lucky, though: the optometrist’s office was in downtown Oakland, so we were all on the same side of the Bay. Other couples were separated for days because with one bridge down, the other bridges suspect, BART halted, and no ferries in operation, there was simply no way home.
Over the following days, we found out about all the dreadful things that had happened around us. Ours was the most-damaged house in our immediate neighborhood, but it was nothing compared to the pancaked Cypress Freeway, where 42 people died in their cars, or the entire Marina District of San Francisco, which burst into flames when the ground liquified and gas lines burst.
Most frightening of all to me was the aftermath in Santa Cruz, near the epicenter of the quake. Robin Ortiz worked behind the counter at the Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company. Her co-workers escaped the building as the un-reinforced brick structure collapsed, but she was missing under the rubble. Rescue workers toiled for hours to find her, but gave up late in the evening, convinced she was dead. Her partner of five years, Ruth Rabinowitz and their friends begged the workers to keep going and eventually police were called to pull them away from the wreckage.
What chilled me was the way the media treated Robin’s partner Ruth. She was portrayed as a nut, a hysterical lesbian fruitcake. A widow would have been a tragic figure: hysterical perhaps but understandably so. This “friend,” as they kept calling her, was just a nuisance, as were her friends. Police arrested five people, including the widow. Robin’s body was found late the next day.
It was a sobering lesson in second-class citizenship. The message was clear: our relationships were not real in the eyes of the public or the law. It would be 24 years before same sex couples in California would enjoy the protection offered by civil marriage.
Thirty years have gone by, and a lot has changed. The Cypress Structure and similar double-decker freeways are all gone from the landscape. The new eastern span of the Bay Bridge is a thing of beauty. Ferries now crisscross the Bay every day, revived in the wake of disaster. And since 2013 same-sex marriage has been legal not just in California, but all over the U.S. When I refer to “my wife,” nobody even blinks.
Rest in peace, Robin Ortiz.