I was driving down the Fell Street ramp off Highway 101 into San Francisco. It was like skiing down a mountain made of Jell-O.
--Larry Yurdin, describing his experience of the October 14, 1989, magnitude 7. 1 Loma Prieta, or "World Series," earthquake that rocked northern California. The ramp was one of many sections of elevated highway around San Francisco Bay that, as a result of damage from the earthquake, were condemned and later demolished. Larry was fortunate to have been on the Fell Street ramp rather than on the Cypress structure of Interstate 880 across the Bay in Oakland, which collapsed, crushing sixty-three people.
THE EARTHQUAKE THAT SHOOK ME AND THE REST OF SALT Lake City awake at 4:14 A.M. that wintry Monday measured 5.2 on the Richter scale. That's a modest quake by California standards, and if you live in Japan, or Mexico City, or Turkey, or in any other place in which violent shaking of terra firma is more common, you'd be done chatting about it by lunchtime. It would linger in your thoughts only if someone mentioned it again, or if you lost a favorite knickknack in the fracas, or if you saw the follow-up in the next day's paper.
But in Salt Lake City, Utah, some of us thought life was ending. The girls who lived across the hall from me greeted the experience with screams of terror and a great deal of howling about Armageddon and other biblical references of doom. Forthem, the Earth had just become a place that had to be reconsidered: a place that might drop them, or cause something to drop on them.
Being a geologist, my experience of the event was somewhat different. I found it exciting, once I got over the disappointment of waking up from the dream I was having about my boyfriend, Ray. That dream and I didn't want to let each other go, so it translated the motion Salt Lake City was experiencing into the bliss of rolling around on that bed under entirely different circumstances. Or at least, I presumed such circumstances would be blissful. Ray's a devout Mormon, and, as we weren't hitched, his policy was to say good night after the lingering tease of a smooch. But my body, having more elaborate ideas, hated to wake up. I can be forgiven for hoping, I trust, because stranger things have been known than for a handsome, healthy thirty-two-year-old male to finally decide to toss policy aside and just plain go for it.
But the earthquake did finally wake me up. Something deep in my brain stem got through to the pleasure section of my gray matter and said, Hey, honey, this isn't just someone bouncing the springs next to you, and aren't those your neighbors screaming?
As I surfaced fully from my dream, I heard not just my neighbors losing their wits, the rattling of books, jam jars, and pot lids, and the crashing of other miscellaneous chattel falling off of shelves, but the sound of my slatted window blinds slapping against the glass. And then it was over. Perhaps ten seconds total.
There were a few seconds of complete silence; then Greta and Julia, the college girls who lived across the hall, caught their breath and started in again with their howling.
I rose up onto my elbows, my heart racing with both the happy and unnerved varieties of adrenaline, still struggling to sort out what my neighbors were trying to tell me. Had the house just been hit by a Mack truck, or were they flipping with jealousy because they'd somehow gotten a glimpse into my dream?
I switched on my reading light and discovered that I was indeedalone. And that the shade on my desk lamp was swaying, all by itself, and my jacket was sliding off the chair onto which I, tired from the previous afternoon's solo cross-country skiing, had dumped it. A pencil rolled off the table that doubled as a dining surface and desk. Then there was more silence, except for the otherworldly ruckus of my panicked neighbors.
The racket suddenly got louder as the door beyond mine crashed open and Greta and Julia thundered out into the hall. They took the stairs at a gallop, ululating like a couple of banshees and wailing prayers to Jehovah. Their voices streamed off in a wild Doppler shift of terror as they flung open the street door and hurried out onto the frozen sidewalk.
I swung my legs out from under the covers and lurched onto them. One leg twanged with pain, and I wobbled, arms whipping around in search of something to grab hold of. I cursed. I had only days before gotten that leg out of a walking cast. It had been broken during a mine cave-in, and I had overdone it with the cross-country skiing, trying to convince myself that I was whole again. But that's another story.
I staggered across the small bed-sitter I was renting and opened the front window, letting in the biting breath of winter, and hollered, "It's all right! It was only an earthquake!"
Greta and Julia reeled back in terror, as if I were some hideous gargoyle come to life.
Which got me to wondering what in hell I was saying. Only? An earthquake? Hey!
I suddenly felt a little exposed there hanging out of the window. So I backed off and slammed it shut.
On brief reflection, I understood their concern perfectly. Those of us who grow up in the great solid interiors of continents tend to think of the Earth as something that holds still. Oh, the ground might crumble underneath our boots as we climb a steep hill on adobe soil, or the passage of a summer's cloudburst might carve a steep gully through it, and we have the occasional landslide, but onthe whole, our experience is that, at depth, Mother Earth stays put. Which is good, and comforting. Floods we've got, and tornadoes, and plagues of locusts, so who needs earthquakes? Those are for idiots who live by volcanoes and steep coastlines, right?
Wrong. Salt Lake City was built right on top of the Wasatch fault, and the Earth had just awakened from a half century's nap.
The phone rang. Ah, I thought. Ray, calling to check on me. How dear. Kind of makes up for his distance lately. I picked it up and said, "Hi, sweet pea."
A female voice on the other end shrieked, "Jesus! What was that?"
I let out a laugh, embarrassed to be caught spilling my love name to the wrong ears, but relieved that it was, at least, a very close friend who had gotten to hear it. "Oh, ah ... hi, Faye. What's up? Certainly not you, at this hour?"
"The hell! That was an earthquake, right?"
"No, just a routine bit of maintenance on the Earth's substructure, the laws of thermodynamics bringing about a little reapportionment of stress translated to its crust, as it were. Yes, that was an earthquake. What's the deal--you got to call up a professional to have it certified?"
"Em, my dear," Faye intoned frostily, "I am a pilot, not a geologist. I know air turbulence. When the Earth shakes, that's your department." Muttering, she added, "Leave it to Em Hansen to intellectualize a near-death experience."
I realized that I was grinning into the phone. I whooped, "Wasn't it great?" Because it was. I had just experienced my first earthquake. I felt excited, even gleeful. I suppose that's part of what sets a geologist apart from normal people: We find natural disasters stimulating. From a professional standpoint, riding out an earthquake is a rite of passage.
"Great?" Faye said. "Woman, you are insane. My favorite Acoma water olla just bit the dust. Or turned to dust."
"Sorry to hear." Much as I admired Acoma pottery, I wascertain she could afford another twenty like it. Faye Carter was filthy, stinking rich. She flew a half-million-dollar airplane on errands at break-even rates for her buddies and called it a delivery service.
"You don't sound suitably sympathetic," she growled.
"Hey, any geologist worth her salt wants just four things in life. One is to witness a volcanic eruption, another is to see a flash flood, a third is a landslide, and a fourth is to feel a real live earthquake. Coming from Wyoming, I've seen a flash flood already, and now here's my earthquake. So that means I'm half way there."
There was a moment of silence at the other end of the telephone line. I expected that she was preparing some spicier rejoinder about finding a saner profession, but instead, very softly, almost at a whimper, she said, "Em, can you come over?"
It was not unheard of for Faye Carter to sound grumpy, but nervousness was not in her nature. "Are you okay?" I asked.
"Of course I'm okay!" she shrieked, which was also out of character. She was silent for another long moment, then said, "I ... aw, hell, Em, the earth just kind of wound up somewhere different, you know? I mean, not all of us find this sort of thing as entertaining as you do! I mean, is it done? It could be a foreshock, right? There might be something bigger coming. Should I run outside? Should I--"
"Is it a foreshock? I have no idea. Not my specialty. More likely there will be aftershocks, but small ones. Very small. Your olla collection won't so much as jiggle."
"You need to get out more," she grumbled, then added something about scientists having been fed turpentine with their pablum.
To which I replied, "I went into geology precisely because I could be outside more. And it's just your house jumping around on you that made the earthquake feel so big. If you had been outside, you--"
"Em, you're sick," she muttered, then gasped, "I wish I hadn't said that," and dropped the phone. It hit something hard with a deafening thunk, and a moment later, I heard the distant but unmistakable sounds of vomiting. I heard also a man's voice: "Faye? You okay, love duck?"
Love duck? Well, that puts sweet pea all in perspective, I decided, but Tom Latimer, Zen FBI agent and curmudgeonly cradle-robber, calls Faye "love duck"? I decided to revise my diagnosis. There had been no earthquake. Instead, my species had gone collectively insane.
I waited for the phone to be picked up again. Waited two minutes, because I was, in fact, concerned about Faye, and not for the more altruistic reasons alone. I had been living in Salt Lake only a few months, she was the closest friend I had in the city, and, love between a hardheaded cop like Ray and a harder-headed geologist like me being what they sometimes were, she topped a short and essential list that might be entitled "Without These People, I Implode." Funny how something like a little natural disaster can leave you feeling more dependent than you had previously been willing to admit.
While I listened to Faye's distant vomiting, I walked around my apartment, switching on lights, inspecting the place for broken crockery. I sniffed slightly over the shattered saltshaker I found in the kitchen and put away my jacket. I glanced out the window to make sure Greta and Julia weren't freezing to death on the front lawn, and saw that our landlady, Mrs. Pierce, was out there wrapping quilts around them, fussing over them like an old hen pecking at june bugs. I waved to let her know I was all right. Finally, I gave up and put the phone back on its cradle. Tom was with Faye, so I could relax and go back to sleep, right?
Wrong again. It was too early to be up, but it was also too late, and I was too wired, for getting back to sleep. I thought of phoning Ray, then remembered that he was out of town, down in Saint George with his mother on family business.
Which means that Ray doesn't yet know about the earthquake ... .
I stopped short in the middle of the room, wondering how I'd known that. Well, because Saint George is at the opposite corner of the state is why. He would not have felt it.
But how did I know that the shaking would not be felt that far away? How did I know that it wasn't a bigger quake centered near him?
Because the motion was sharp, chattery; a quick jolting followed by a high-amplitude rolling sensation.
I have this kind of conversation with myself all the time. Geologists are emotional introverts, which means that they like to keep to themselves, but intellectual extroverts, which means that we like to think out loud. Which frequently results in our ... well, talking to ourselves. But abstracted or not, I knew--instinctively, intuitively--that I was very close to the epicenter of the earthquake. I had made a kinesthetic evaluation of the amplitude and frequency of the vibrations, and had intuited that the initial chattery vibrations would attenuate over a very short distance, leaving only the big rollers, and even they would feel more liquid, less jolting the farther I was from the epicenter.
I tried to remember the lectures from my freshman Physical Geology course, in which the professor had described the kinds of shock waves set off by the slippage along fault planes that we call an earthquake. I remembered that they had differing senses of motion--some push-pull, some side to side, some up and down. First came the fast, short-amplitude P waves (for primary), then the slower but bigger S waves (for secondary). But there my memory fizzled out. It had been too long since college. I couldn't recall which wave was which. One propagated along the surface of the Earth and another traveled at depth, but ...
But I trust my gut sense, I decided. The shock waves might have been felt ten miles away, but not one hundred, and certainly not as far away as Saint George. I am a geologist down to my deepest neurons, and I believe my observations.
About then, certain possibilities began to hit me. Geology had just happened in a big way, and right under my feet. Perhaps, in the aftermath of this event, there will be work for me! Maybe the Utah Geological Survey will need me part-time, even, so I can keep going to school. Enough of this job-hunt merry-go-round! If--no, when--I find work, I can even tell Tom Latimer to take a hike with this training he's putting me through. This thought in particular appealed to me. Tom and I had been getting together on the odd evening and weekend. He was training me to be a detective, or operative, or whatever he liked to call himself. He was teaching me how to detect things formally, through the old-fashioned routes, and without risking my foolish neck. But I was beginning to think that low risk meant life in a laboratory, looking at bags of dirt shipped in from the remote places I'd prefer to be, and old-fashioned seemed to mean the same thing as tedious. I'd begun to tire of the whole idea. "Give me a good field job in geology," I'd told him. "Out there by myself. Working out geological puzzles, not human ones. That will keep me out of trouble." For the first time that day, Tom had laughed.
Laugh while you can, cloak-and dagger boy, I told him now in the privacy of my own head, because the earth has moved, and I am going to do some geology! I grabbed my jeans, some wool socks, and a pair of boots--my favorite old pair of red ropers, for luck--and wiggled into them. Did the rupture come to surface? I wondered. Will I be able to see the scarp? No, it wasn't that big. Well, maybe some chimneys have fallen, or maybe there's even a house off its foundations!
I stopped, my right boot halfway on my foot, chagrined at what I'd been thinking. I was a student of the Earth, but Faye had been right: My excitement was everybody else's tragedy. I began to wonder about the damage in a different way. Wondered if anyone had been hurt. Wondered if any cornices had fallen on people's heads. These thoughts kept me frozen for several seconds.
Well then, I'll just go out and see if I can help, I told myself. I pulled my boot the rest of the way onto my foot, slipped into my down parka, checked its right-hand pocket for my keys, and hurried out the door.
Copyright © 2002 by Sarah Andrews Brown. Excerpt from Killer Dust © 2003 by Sarah Andrews Brown.