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A rescue effort on the collapsed wreckage of the Cypress Freeway in Oakland, Calif. on October 17, 1989 after the Loma Prieta earthquake. (Michael Macor/Staff)

When the underground tsunami of soil and bedrock came boiling up the San Andreas Fault on the evening of Oct. 17, 1989, it exploded like a bomb in Los Gatos — the first small town in the path of the heaving seismic wave. The Loma Prieta earthquake brought down the brick facades of buildings along Los Gatos' Main Street, including the historic opera house.

And it was just getting started.

As the quake rippled outward from its core, it left a trail of destruction from Santa Cruz to San Francisco.

In the lifetime of most Californians, this would be the Big One, the unforgettable quake against which all others were measured. And yet, at 6.9 on the moment magnitude scale, Loma Prieta was not a particularly ferocious tremor — worldwide, there have been 12 earthquakes as large or larger this year.

It was awful enough. Loma Prieta left 63 dead, most of them buried in the rubble of the Cypress Structure collapse about 50 miles north in Oakland. Thousands more were injured and the quake caused $7 billion worth of damage throughout the Bay Area.

But its 15-second duration was a mere hiccup in temblor terms: It was the Itty Bitty Big One. As recently as 2006, a quake in Sumatra shook for 10 minutes, and the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 kept that city and its inhabitants writhing for nearly a minute.

"The longest minute of your life," says Jim Yoke, emergency services coordinator for the Santa Clara County Fire Department.

Are we ready for it?

Loma Prieta by the numbers

—Oct. 17, 1989
—5:04 p.m.
—15 seconds
—6.9 magnitude
—63 deaths
—$7 billion in damage, estimated in 1989 dollars

Damages to housing units

County Destroyed or significantly damaged Estimate in need of repair Total
San Francisco 6,300 18,500 24,800
Alameda 1,300 2,000 3,300
Santa Cruz 3,000 10,000 13,000
Santa Clara 400 600 1,000
TOTAL 11,000 31,100 42,100

About this photo

A rescue effort on the collapsed wreckage of the Cypress Freeway in Oakland, Calif. on October 17, 1989 after the Loma Prieta earthquake. (Michael
A rescue effort on the collapsed wreckage of the Cypress Freeway in Oakland, Calif. on October 17, 1989 after the Loma Prieta earthquake. (Michael Macor/Staff) ( MICHAEL MACOR )

Michael Macor was one of the staff photographers for the Oakland Tribune who won a Pulitzer Prize for Spot News in 1990 for coverage of the Loma Prieta earthquake.
Macor, who now works for the San Francisco Chronicle, was in the Tribune building when the quake hit, and immediately took to the streets with a couple of cameras and a handful of film.
He parked a couple of blocks from the Cypress structure where the collapse, he said, stretched as far as he could see. The scene resembled a movie set, with smoke billowing in the background and chaos everywhere as rescuers raced to find survivors. Here, survivor Erik Carlson, 60 at the time, was being lifted up and over the railing and onto a waiting ladder and into an ambulance.
Macor said he wanted to get a background view of the length of the collapse in his photo, but his eye-level vantage point became blocked by the ladder. So, he said, he "did a 'Hail Mary,' " held the camera above his head, held his breath and took the shot. "It turned out to be perfectly framed."
Ten minutes later, officers on the scene chased him and other media off the precarious structure as aftershocks continued to roll through.
-Mercury News