Loma Prieta, at Apple

Though it wasn’t a Hollywood moment, the hamster made it out just fine; it had had plenty of practice.

It was the afternoon of a not-really-hot day in October 1989. The hamster in question belonged to a cow-orker in the Development Systems Group at Apple (the folks responsible for the Macintosh Programmer’s Workshop — and now you have another reason to teepee my yard). Our group was on the second floor of one of Apple’s older buildings, called Mariani 1, (if it is still standing, it’s across the street from Infinite Loop). Apple named buildings by the streets they were and added a number in the order the buildings were bought or leased, so Bubb 3 might be next to Bubb 5.

Ms. Hamster had been bonking around the office in her little ball for several weeks. You’d hear a small “pockity pock” in the distance that would gradually grow louder, and then the little beastie would roll into your cubie, bonk against your feet, and follow the wall out and on to the next cubie. That practice I mentioned earlier: Once the hammy found the stairs, which were raw, unforgiving concrete inset with hatch-marked steel bars for traction. You can’t tell if a hamster has been traumatized, but I always thought the bonking sounds were a little more tentative after Ms. H’s precipitous visit to the first floor lobby.

Anyway, just after five in the afternoon of this otherwise unremarkable day, the Great Giant Snake that lives under the Santa Cruz mountains to the west of Silly Valley got a tummyache, burped, and we found out about it a few seconds later as the P-waves arrived and started making a mess of things.

First: A bump, and a little bit of dizziness. Did a small truck just hit the building?

Then: No, the fluorescent lights are swinging, and the floor is definitely jiggling. Oh, this is moving lots more than the last quake, the tiny 4.5 we had a few years ago. Hey, that shifted my chair, and my monitor is doing a bobble-head thing, and it weighs like seventy pounds and is mostly made of glass and if it jumps off the desk it’s going explode and shower me with busted glass.

Against better judgment: This is really going strong. Is it the Big One? Maybe I should get out of here. Get up, start walking briskly to the stairs. Many people join me. We are all walking briskly; no panic, but with determination. Everyone is curiously silent. Intent on trying not to panic.

Someone does panic, and starts to run. Someone else (maybe me) yells out “WALK!” and they do.

Suddenly there’s a SLAM and the building feels like a whole metro bus hitting a curb, and it’s a scene from Star Trek on the bridge of the Enterprise; shields are down and the people around me are thrown right and then left, actually more competently than on the show. Rather, the building is being thrown left and then right, and we’re rattling around inside and being bonked by walls and stuff. The lights go out. There are screams (not me, I think).

The photon torpedo attack dies down. We briskly walk down the stairs and get outside. Car alarms are going off. A couple of motorcyclists are pissed because their bikes have been toppled.


I wish I could truthfully add: And a hamster ball rolled out of the building’s front doors and stopped at our feet. That would have been a wonderful Hollywood moment, but it didn’t happen.


We milled around for a while. After about an hour we were briefly allowed back in the building to collect essentials such as car keys and told to go home.

At the time I lived in an apartment a short distance from the Apple campus, so my commute was a simple ten minute walk. I was glad I didn’t have to drive anywhere; the power was still out, none of the traffic lights were working, and as near as I could tell things were just gridlocked.

At my apartment, one of my bookcases had been toppled, but that was the extent of the damage. I didn’t own a battery powered radio, however, so I had to go to my car and use its radio. I met some of my neighbors and we swapped stories.

Around six in the evening, helicopters from the local Naval air station (Moffett Field) came into view; perhaps four or five of them flying abreast, doing a grid-like search over the area. I imagine they were looking for things like fires; in the hour before dusk it looked a little like a scene from a Vietnam war movie.

The power came back on about ten o’clock, and we got to see footage of the really bad areas (Santa Cruz, the Marina district of San Fransisco, and the horror of the collapsed freeway in the East Bay). Those of us at work not actually involved in cleaning stuff up were told to stay away until things were under control (in DeAnza 3, the main engineering building, the fire sprinkler system had cut loose and sprayed rusty, dirty water into most of the computer systems, and people spent weeks drying systems out with hair driers and recovering data).

For several weeks, I couldn’t cross a freeway bridge without making plans in my head about what to do if there was a quake. And I bought a battery-powered radio.

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6 Responses to Loma Prieta, at Apple

  1. Roger says:

    BTW the earthquake happened in 1989 not 1987.

  2. landon says:

    @Roger: /doh!/. [I was confused, probably because I started at Apple in 1987, and it was another date in my head.]

  3. Phil says:

    So.. what did happen to the hamster?

  4. Ooklamok says:

    No, really, what happened to the hamster?

  5. landon says:

    Hamster was fine. You can’t tell if a hamster has been traumatized.

  6. DLS says:

    I was working near Great America then. A colleague was in my office and he actually jumped over the back of his chair running for the door. We went outside and waited, and were standing in the parking lot when the aftershock happened. It took about 45 minutes just to get to Lawrence Expy. I lived just s/w of El Camino at the time. I remember driving over it on Lawrence and seeing it be dark in both directions and thinking that it probably hadn’t looked like that in a very long time. At home, my wife was fine, the bookcases were toppled, and the dog was anxious. When the quake started my wife stood in a doorway and braced herself. To the dog, I’m sure it looked as if she were shaking the building. One way to gain the respect of your dog… 😉

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