It looked like a scene from a made-for-TV movie: the symbolism, the emotional tug on viewers. But it was
actually from a taped-for-TV newscast. It was indeed symbolic -- and painful and uplifting and real.
It showed a man standing beside the rubble of what had been his home in the Santa Cruz mountains, at the epicenter of
the devastating earthquake that shook San Francisco and environs 16 years ago this month, in October of 1989.
"Why you?" a news reporter asked the man.
He shrugged and, half-smiling, explained that the house was "a fixer-upper that I'd just about finished fixing up."
"Funny," the man said, "I guess there's nothing left to fix up now."
Finally he answered the question.
"Why me? I don't know ... but why not? Guess we'll just have to start over."
Nothing better showed the attitude of the surviving earthquake victims. Sure, nature struck them a terrible blow, but
a random blow, one that could just as easily have have struck another. No point in cursing their bad fortune. It could have
been far worse. They were alive and there was nothing to do but get on with living.
But I and some others in the area of destruction who escaped with no physical scars still wanted answers. We wanted to
know why them and not us.
The geologists had an easy answer for my wife Gerry and me. Our house in San Francisco sits high on a hill of bedrock
that is as close to earthquake proof as a place can be. But it's a hill that overlooks much of the city, the bay and the bridge
that connects the city to the East Bay area that spreads out across the horizon, the buildings of downtown Oakland and the
hills and mountains that rise high above and beyond them.
We stared anxiously from the safety of our dining room, looking out the undamaged picture windows at smoke and flames
billowing from the broken homes, flats and apartment buildings of San Francisco's Marina District.
We often visited the neighborhood and could easily have been there when the earthquake struck, away from the bedrock safety
of our home. But we weren't. Why not?
"The Cypress structure on I-880 has collapsed," said a voice from the radio. A whole section of the double-decked freeway
had fallen! I quickly snatched up the binoculars. Dust still hung in the air over the roadway at the far end of the Bay Bridge.
Hundreds were feared dead, said the radio voice. And there was more: A section of the bridge itself had fallen.
Gerry and I regularly drove that route. We could very well have been on the bridge. Why weren't we?
We could have been in the area in downtown San Francisco where a brick wall tumbled down, killing six people, including
the father of one of Gerry's immigrant Chinese students.
We could have been in Santa Cruz where we sometimes spent weekends. But we were safe and secure on our hill, looking down
on destruction we had escaped, detached from others in our city, safe but detached and isolated. We were cut off entirely
when the sun set an hour later.
It was as if we were alone in the middle of nowhere, high on a cliff with nothing below. We looked out onto a void, into
utter blackness, not out onto the dazzling, inviting panorama of lights we had long taken for granted.
Our electric power failed when the earthquake struck, and we had to use a battery-powered radio and bring out the candles
for a bit. But our power was restored within a few hours, much quicker than that of most people below, and we were unscathed.
Nothing broken, hardly anything disturbed. We didn't have to so much as straighten the paintings on the wall.
Concerned relatives and friends from outside the Bay Area, bless them, nevertheless called to determine if we were safe
and unharmed. They were greatly worried, thanks in large part to the network TV coverage that had virtually the whole of the
San Francisco Bay Area in ruins.
We felt almost apologetic assuring them that all was well with us. We had not shared in the terrible burden that had fallen
on our city.
Psychologists say it's natural after a disaster for survivors to feel such guilt, and that those who feel that way soon
get over it. We did. But we've never forgotten.
More than a decade later, we still wonder, Why not us? And if it had been us, would we have had the spirit to respond
like the man who stood in the ruins of his house in the mountains, not worrying over why what happened had happened, but speaking
of what needed to be done now, planning for a better, brighter future?
Copyright © Dick Meister