What Was the Loma Prieta Earthquake?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 18 October 2019
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The Loma Prieta earthquake was a major earthquake that caused extensive damage throughout Northern California on 17 October 1989. Known variously as the '89 quake or the World Series earthquake, the quake is believed responsible for about 60 deaths and nearly 4000 injuries. Experts suggest that damage from the Loma Prieta earthquake would have been far more devastating if not for widespread earthquake retrofitting throughout much of the Bay Area and other affected areas.

According to some scientific findings, the Loma Prieta earthquake may have been connected to a series of magnetic disturbances near the fault areas that had been occurring for nearly two weeks prior to the quake. At 5:04 P.M. On 17 October 1989, the 7.1 Richter scale earthquake occurred deep in the Santa Cruz mountains near Loma Prieta Peak on the San Andreas fault. Along the fault line, which serves as a major boundary between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates, rocks at the surface fell up to 7 ft (2.1 m) during the quake.


At the time of the Loma Prieta earthquake, the Bay Area was already in a frenzy over the 1989 World Series, which was being held between two local teams, the Oakland A's and the San Francisco Giants. The quake occurred during warm-ups for game three of the series at Candlestick Park, meaning that considerable footage of the quake was captured on the already-present news cameras. This marked one of the first earthquakes in which extensive news footage was filmed during the event.

One of the most recognizable damage sites of the earthquake is the Bay Bridge, a double-decked structure that connects San Francisco to Oakland. As a result of the earthquake, a section of the upper deck collapsed, trapping people on both levels of the bridge. One of the most incredible stories of the Loma Prieta earthquake concerns a survivor named Bruce Stephan, whose car plunged into the collapsed hole of the bridge and nearly fell off the structure. Mr. Stephan, having escaped a tragic death in the earthquake, went on to also miraculously survive the 11 September 2001 bombings in New York, despite being on the 65th floor of the World Trade Center at the time of the attack.

Devastation throughout the other parts of the Bay Area managed to exceed the collapsing bridge. On Interstate 880 at the Cypress Viaduct, the two-level freeway crumbled completely, killing 42 people. The Pacific Garden Mall in Santa Cruz suffered substantial collapses that killed three more. As brick facades, walls, towers, and buildings collapsed around the San Francisco Bay, many more were killed and thousands injured. Fires broke out around the area, burning a considerable portion of the picturesque Marina district in San Francisco while firetrucks were snagged in traffic delays due to the earthquake.

In the wake of the Loma Prieta earthquake, local officials vowed to extend efforts to make roads, bridges, and structures earthquake safe. More than a decade passed before most of the damage was repaired, much of that time devoted to the rebuilding of the Cypress Viaduct. Despite the damage and loss of life, experts suggest that the destructive effect of the quake could have been far more extensive, but was deterred thanks to earthquake retrofitting in many areas. Earthquake experts, however, continue to urge disaster readiness and increased safety measures to better prepare California for similar or larger earthquakes in the future.


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