Friday, October 16, 2009

Where Were You During Loma Prieta: Oct. 17, 1989?

The day had been warm and it was October, known as earthquake season. Other than that, there wasn’t much to think about than the sun was bright and I would be afforded a nice motorcycle ride on a pleasant day. There wasn’t anything to indicate this would be one of the worst afternoons in San Francisco history.

At 5:04 p.m. I was on my motorcycle having just left Bair Island Storage on the east side of 101 in Redwood City (a parking lot and defunct Century Park 12 are there now) when all hell broke loose. Only the day before I had adjusted the chain on my Yamaha 400 and thought I had done something wrong. Both wheels vibrated as though ready to fly off!

Pulling to the side, I leaned the motorcycle left and right to see what was loose. The wheels were solidly attached. If I wasn’t wearing a helmet (in those days you didn’t have to wear one) I’d probably have been scratching my head. That’s when I looked up to see the line of street lamps swinging back and forth like metronomes—I had just experienced an earthquake, and a big one at that!

To my left, all the cars that had been speeding along on HWY 101 were pulled to the side of the road. People were out of their cars and talking, stunned looks on their faces. I drove to Belmont to check on my parents and then headed up to San Francisco to check on my girlfriend. All was good, and then I got a call from my Emmy and Edward R. Murrow-winning camera buddy, Mark Eveslage.

His producer needed someone with a motorcycle to run tapes between the shooting locations and the KRON affiliate for NBC on Van Ness. I wasn’t too interested; I was only in San Francisco as a break from the war in Central America. But, then they told me how much I’d get paid.

In minutes I was on my Yamaha and lane-splitting through non-stop, stop-and-go traffic from Milbrae to San Francisco: people trying to get to San Francisco from work, trying to get past bridges that closed, like the Bay Bridge whose top section had dropped. I made it in record time and expected to start running tapes immediately.

Instead, the producer said, as I followed him through the darkened halls of KRON that yet had to be lit by the KRON generators, “Get out of the city and get us food: chips, sodas, anything you can get at a 7-11.” San Francisco was wrapped in an electrical blackout.

As I made my way carefully down dark halls, I noticed Jerry Graham. Before Doug McConnell hosted “Bay Area Backroads” for 15 years, there was Jerry Graham, a KSAN general manager who started the show by travelling the state with a cameraman capturing the fun places to visit in California. Never did my parents miss an episode…plus he was a fellow Graham, and you know how the Scots are about clan names.

So, even though I had as a photojournalist in Southeast Asia and Central America met kings, sultans, presidents and generals, seeing a family mainstay kind of hit me with awe…until I heard an NBC employee make a snide remark that made me chuckle with the others who had heard: “You better start looking for a job!”

A bit of morbid humor, more than a comment about Graham’s employability, I probably would have enjoyed it more if the comment wasn’t so illustrated by the day’s events on the monitors in the newsrooms. The San Francisco Bay and Monterey area had been pummeled. A gunshot sounded out toward the Tenderloin, punctuating the thought. With lights out in the city, the looting had started.

As I left, the electric generators started running and KRON looked more like a jungle firebase I’d have seen back in El Salvador, a lone white-walled fort illuminated in the night.

A quick drive down to San Bruno to fill up on food and gas and I was back in San Francisco. As I unloaded the goodies for the crew, I noticed an Asian man in his early 30s who introduced himself as Steve Sung. What caught my eye what I’d seen too many times in the war zones.

With a nod toward the long, indented scar up along his arm, I asked “Where’d you get that?”

“I was an audio tech at Jonestown,” he said.

I recalled the massacre, the Kool-Aid suicide, and the reporters hitting the deck as gunmen ambushed the US delegation and them at the airfield. One of those killed was SF Examiner photographer Greg Robinson, after whom a darkroom and scholarship would be named at our alma mater, San Francisco State University.

While Sung and I traded stories about covering gunfire, first NBC reporter Bob Jamieson arrived, then Bob Dotson, and finally Tom Brokaw. It’s funny how world events suddenly seem to take on a whole new aura, an imagined stamp of greater importance, when national TV news reporters arrive.

Dotson is probably one of the nicest guys you’ll meet in the media; Jamieson had some interesting things to say about baseball, especially to the baby-faced kid I was then; and Brokaw didn’t look like he wanted to be there at all. Frankly, I, too, would have preferred to be in LA at a tennis match with family instead of joining in on what I would later learn was the “Media Zoo.”

Introductions passed around, the reporters moved on to their reporting, and I went onto shuffling producers, assistant producers and tapes back and forth between the Marina and KRON.

It was pretty easy work, actually one of the first duties I got paid for in El Salvador as I made extra cash as a translator and gofer for visiting networks in San Salvador. The producers in San Francisco, though, didn’t like the speed with which I flew along Franklin to get them to the Marina the first time. I was just back in Salvador mode where you didn’t stop at lights, red light nor not, else the banditos and FMLN guerrillas carjacked you.

One producer, who was only memorable for his blond flattop and constant scowl, really got on my nerves. I got a kick out making him squirm with my lead foot on the gas pedal. A little fun until I saw what has happening at the Marina. Night battles in Central America couldn’t have been more lit!

Water was everywhere. Flames were everywhere the water wasn’t. As if in a dance in the Infierno, were the shadows and silhouettes of firemen doing their best keep the fire at bay. When you see a city block ablaze in San Francisco it leaves an impression!

By morning the San Francisco Fire Department had pretty much conquered the fire, and I signed for a stack of $50 bills from NBC. On the way south on 101 I noticed the trailer for my previous employer in El Salvador, the Associated Press. I stopped in and was immediately reminded why I had gotten fed up with being a photojournalist. “I want fires, blood, bodies—if it bleeds it leads!” the AP bureau chief said, like so many other before him.

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll see what I can do.” Even though I strung for them out of Bangkok and San Salvador, I couldn’t get a press card from them in time here in San Francisco.

So, what did I do? I made one—pretty official with the blaze orange tape and laminated. It was amazing what a laminated card could get you a pass to during the pre-1990s computerized, holographic identification card.

With camera bag across my chest, I rode my motorcycle to where most of the deaths had occurred. Tom Brokaw was already standing in front of a camera with mic in hand. And beyond him stretched a caravan of other networks. Dan Rather made his way across to the CBS motorhomes.

As the Oakland cop checked out the press credential—one thing you learn through having to use forged documents in foreign countries, in very dangerous places, is that it’s all about attitude. I’d been in enough successful events to act properly: a nod of thank you and pleasant smile as you pass.

That’s when it really hit me how much of a journalism zoo the Bay Area had become. Frankly it turned my stomach—almost as much as when I decided to stop covering the war in Central America because of the inaccuracy of reportage I was seeing, and how everyone went around on “media safaris” in their cute little white vans and the letters “TV” taped on the side.

Sure, I followed along on the guide tour setup by the Oakland Police Department. They didn’t want anyone climbing and getting up close to the crushed bodies that still had to be removed from the structure above. Plus, it was perilous enough standing under the overpass that still supported not only the crushed vehicles and bodies, but also the tons of upper-level structure.

After only a few shots, after nearly seven years in combat photography in Southeast Asia and Central America, I took a break and asked a man sitting on a pile of large rubble if I could share the bench. There’s a stat running around the journalism field that says the average life expectancy of a majority of journalists is age 30, and then it’s off to PR or advertising for some big corporation or city. That day as I sat there thinking, I realized I had beat that by seven years, having started as an 18-year-old in Thailand—I was truly done…

Introducing myself to the man who shared the rubble with me, I learned he was Dr. Williams from Colorado. His trade was psychology. A Vietnam veteran who not only worked with fellow veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he had volunteered to assist first response emergency teams pulling the dead and wounded deal with the emotional and psychological impact of their experience.

As we talked about the symptoms of PTSD, I realized that while I had done the work needed to heal the traumatic childhood memories of living in Saigon during some of the worst events of the Vietnam War, later described in my 2004 Topseller, The Bamboo Chest, I had added new events during my years in Central America from 1985 to 1989 that had caused subconscious responses easily labeled PTSD. Leaving Oakland with exposed film I didn’t even take to the makeshift AP bureau office for developing, I went home.

Within six months I had broken off an engagement from my girlfriend who had become my fiancé. Within two days of the final blows of separation, I was in a VW van, packed with books, rifle, shotgun and fishing rods and headed north along the AlCan. And within nine days of that I was moving into a cabin overlooking dramatic and healing beauty of Cook Inlet and Mount Redoubt in Alaska.

I arrived to write the first draft of my first memoir and work on the psychological effects from my combat experiences in Central America, soon to be captured in my next memoir my agent is preparing to take ‘round the publishing houses in New York.

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