Reflections on Loma Prieta: Civil Engineering & Gay Rights

When the earthquake rolled through the Bay Area at 5:04 PM, Tuesday, October 17, 1989, I was on the 24th floor of the Steuart Street tower, of One Market Plaza, at the foot of Market Street and a block from the Ferry Building in downtown San Francisco. A building engineer at One Market later told us that our building had swung back and forth at least 12 feet off center, tracing 24’ wide arcs in the sky, for more than a minute after the quake, like most of the other tall buildings in the City. At that time I was working for a twenty attorney firm doing transactions, insurance bad faith, land use and a wide variety of civil litigation spawned by those practice areas. The first game of the World Series, remarkably between the Oakland A’s and the Giants, was just beginning. I had been talking to a friend in the office, standing just a few feet away from the emergency exit leading to an interior stairwell, when the books starting falling off the shelves in our library, then a few ceiling panels fell to the floor. My friend and I looked at each other and headed for the stairway. We flew down the first several floors of our descent, stepping on not more than two of each ten tread flight of stairs, as we plunged from landing to landing, hands on the bannisters at each side of the surprisingly narrow stairway. Then the lights went out, leaving us all in total darkness until the much dimmer emergency lighting system blinked on several seconds later. The stairway was then suddenly jammed full of people, pressed shoulder to shoulder, all of us seemingly taking together one tentative step at a time until we reached the ground floor. It took an intolerably long time to get out of the building.

Outside, the sense of the emergency unfolding during those first moments after the earthquake, was palpable. A limousine was parked at a 45 degree angle across two or three lanes at the foot of Market Street, several people clustered around its doors, all trying to watch a tiny TV somewhere inside the long car. Oddly, the sound of that TV, blaring out the first news about the quake, could be heard from a considerable distance away, because the usual din of the City had stopped. The entire downtown was strangely quiet. The flagpole on top of the Ferry Building had fallen and then stuck at a peculiar angle. Someone shouted out that the Bay Bridge had collapsed (one end of one section of the top deck of the cantilevered part of the bridge between Yerba Buena Island and Oakland had fallen to the bottom deck). We could see from where we stood that eastbound traffic on the bottom level of the Bay Bridge, ten stories above us and five blocks to the south, had stopped. Worst, a long low cloud of dark brown and black smoke, visible from the SF shoreline, was darkening the East Bay, in line with downtown Oakland (this was smoke from vehicles crushed in the collapse of the elevated double decked Cypress Structure section of the I-880 freeway). For reasons that seemed logical then, I decided to walk to my house in the Sunset District, by heading north along the Embarcadero and from there continuing around the edge of the City, through the Wharf along the east edge of the Marina District, where I literally stepped over the canvas hoses through which the SFFD’s two fireboats were pumping Bay water onto the fires that were then breaking out in collapsed apartment buildings in the Marina District.

Months later, back at the office, I was assigned to work on the wrongful death case on behalf of the parents of a 35 year old gay man, who had been killed while driving his car on the lower deck of the Cypress Structure, when the nearly two mile long upper deck of the freeway pancaked down upon the lower deck, crushing all but a handful of the cars and trucks that were then being driven on the lower deck. In a remarkable twist of fate, the volume of traffic on that highway, which otherwise would have been dense with stop-and-go Tuesday evening commute hour conditions, was very light – because so many people were watching the game with Oakland and San Francisco teams. I remember driving on the Cypress Structure for years before it fell down. It had literally been a noisy roadway to drive upon, because the tires of all the vehicles, would snap on crossing the joints between adjoining sections of the highway. And the roadbed along that entire section of the elevated highway was noticeably out of level, to the point where, as an occupant of a car, the car would bounce up and down, undulating, as the car passed along high points adjacent each set of supporting pillars. In working on the wrongful death case, it became common knowledge among the attorneys handling injury and death claims for victims of the Cypress Structure collapse, that a prominent U.C. Berkeley, Civil Engineering professor had made annual visits to the Cypress Structure for several years preceding its demise, taking his classes in tow for field trip instruction about – in sum – how not to design and build an elevated freeway structure. Likely for such reasons, the State of California quickly established and funded a settlement program for all claims involving the failure of the Cypress Structure, sparing litigants and attorneys from pursuing and proving hundreds of separate claims against Caltrans. And it was in connection with this State run settlement program that our clients’ (parents of the deceased) wrongful death claim was prepared, submitted to and ultimately resolved.

Twenty-five years ago, a same sex domestic partner of a victim killed by the negligence of others, had no rights to claim damages and sue for wrongful death. At that time, California law permitted only blood or married relatives of the deceased to sue for wrongful death. This meant that only a spouse, child, parent, or sibling of a deceased victim could bring such a suit. In the case I handled, the victim had been a gay man who had lived with another man in a long-term relationship. In a wrongful death case, in addition to loss of financial support (when applicable), the claimant party sues for the “loss of the society and comfort” of the deceased. In our case, the more we learned about the deceased, the more it became apparent that the partner of the deceased had and would continue to experience a grievous loss of the actual, immediate, day-to-day “comfort and society” of the deceased, as well as the loss of plans for this close relationship to have continued indefinitely in the future. Whereas our clients, the parents of the deceased, lived in a Midwestern State, had certainly once been emotionally and physically close to their son, but this relationship had been deeply strained when this son had told his parents that he was gay, and had been further strained when the son moved to San Francisco and settled down with his partner in the Castro District. We ultimately presented the case to the state administered Cypress Structure program, literally with a theory that this young man had relocated to San Francisco and obtained a job with a major corporation in order to develop business skills and experience which he and our clients had expected he would use in working for the family business, thereby conferring both financial support and companionship to his parents, upon his projected return to the Midwest sometime in the future. And the claim was ultimately settled, based at least in part upon this theory about their son’s future return to the family business. At the same time, the man who by every indication had been the love of the deceased victim’s life, was not permitted at law to even participate in the wrongful death claim process. He was denied his day in court. However, in a welcome and overdue development of the law since Loma Prieta, had the circumstances and events that surrounded and befell this victim and his partner, occurred today, under current California law, the partner of this victim would have had the legal right to sue for wrongful death damages.

Such are the images and subjects that come to mind about the experience and aftermath of the Loma Prieta quake, through the lens of twenty five years of practicing law in this City by the Bay.

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