Monday, July 11, 2005 | Captain John Cauble, wheels and flaps down, glided toward Balboa Park and the end of the Lindbergh runway beyond, most of his focus on the 737 in front of him that was about to touch down.
Cauble had 217 souls on board his American 767-200 inbound from JFK, a flight that was mainly routine except for those minutes around takeoff and landing where a quick decision, if it was to be made, was most likely to happen.
On the Coronado Bridge eastbound, Jane Christman’s gaze lifted from the downtown skyline to the sudden glint of an evening sun off the silver skin of the American aircraft.
Downtown, Matt Bahr had finished some last-minute work and was striding through the lobby of the Comerica Building on B Street, in a hurry to meet friends outside Petco Park by 6:15.
Downtown was almost emptied onto the freeways after the close of the workday and the radio rush-hour rangers told of the usual slowing on northbound I-5 and I-15, with Interstate 8 east and highway 94 looking pretty good. Around the bay, bars and restaurants were starting to fill. An almost-full Coaster departed the classic old Depot and negotiated the crossings through Little Italy, then rolled a little faster toward the trestles over the San Diego River mouth.
At that moment, 11 miles beneath the city, a stability of rock faces that had endured for 2,300 years suddenly gave way. The west face of the Silver Strand Fault broke free and slipped north, a few inches in some places, as much as two feet in others. Movement waves rocketed out from the event in all directions, reaching the surface, and the streets of the city, almost instantly.
John Cauble glanced at the sunlight slicing through skyscrapers and park evergreens below, then found the 737 again just as its tires smoked in contact with the runway. He took his usual gunsight fix on the Laurel Travel Center and was idly gauging the distance the 767’s landing gear would pass above it. Suddenly the building looked strange. Its edges seemed to blur inside a cloud of dust rising from it. Beyond, on the runway, Cauble picked up the 737 again. Its tail was veering to starboard, as if, Cauble would remember, the plane was being turned on an old LP turntable.
On the bridge, Jane Christman was slammed suddenly against her husband Carter, who was driving and suddenly trying to understand why the steering wheel didn’t seem to be attached to the wheels. The car swerved back and forth on its own, bouncing off the side rail back to the middle into other vehicles, all of them out of control and moving on their own. Then, instinctively, Carter hit the brakes. Ahead of him, vehicles were disappearing from view, as if they were falling off the end of the bridge.
Matt Bahr was two strides from the soaring Comerica glass lobby doors when he was sent flying through the air and through the doors, standing rigidly open as if blown by a hurricane wind. He landed, unhurt under the entrance overhang, and tried to hang on to the smooth walkway as the earth tried to shake him loose. Twenty feet in front of him, he saw a surreal, thundering rain: computers, file cabinets, desks, chairs, conference tables and window glass, dropping into B Street.
Seven blocks to the west, asphalt, concrete and utilities ruptured along the line of the fault itself, that started approximately at the First Avenue bridge over I-5, continued south through downtown, into the bay and underneath the Coronado approach to the bridge, crossing the Silver Strand just above the sprawling Navy facility a mile south of the Hotel del, and on into the ocean to a point just off the Mexican coast north of Rosarito.
John Cauble didn’t understand what was happening, but it took him less than a second to make a decision. He hit the throttles and yelled at his copilot to retract the landing gear offering the pilot only a quick glimpse of the 737, still spinning, on a runway being dissected into slabs before the nose came up and the 767 roared above the stricken airport and out toward the ocean. As he flew, and saw the strange dust and blurring across all of Point Loma, Cauble remembered the series of California earthquakes in the last several days and wondered what they would find in Los Angeles.
The Coaster’s engineer had no time for such thoughts. He had an instant to yank his emergency brake, but the heavy engine slid off tracks that were writhing like snakes and plowed into the muddy alluvium of the San Diego River, pulling its cars along with it.
The shaking, with a huge roar, continued for 15 seconds, then stopped. Into the silence grew the sounds, both mechanical and human, of a severely wounded city. On the sidewalk, Matt Bahr watched white confetti floating down between the buildings – legal files. By the count of three, in command centers and stations from Del Mar to the border, emergency personnel had regained clear-headedness enough to go into response mode.
Response to what? Where? How bad? Pulling on gear, running toward the trucks, what would they see, and encounter, as they moved out to assist a city riven by an earthquake like this?
Those questions had been discussed as part of a “San Diego Regional Earthquake Conference” in April of 1988, chaired by Susan Golding, then vice-chair of the County Board of Supervisors.
The event included a presentation of a state Office of Emergency Services manual, “Earthquake Planning Scenario for the San Diego-Tijuana Border Area,” published and released in 1988. The scenario was based on a magnitude 6.8 earthquake occurring along the Silver Strand Fault, which, in fact, had occurred. In eastern suburbs that still had power, red “Breaking News” logos were flashing on television screens, and regular programming cut to anchors who gave the first word of “a major earthquake striking in or near downtown San Diego, Calif.”
In fact the area most affected was a long rectangle from Del Mar to the border and inland to Interstate 805. Hardest-hit was the coastal zone, nearest the fault itself, and also the area with the “poorest ground,” in the words of the scenario, alluvial and hydraulic fill areas around Mission Bay, Loma Portal and San Diego Bay, that was likely to “liquefact,” turning to sandy slush beneath anything built on it. That was what Captain Cauble had seen happening to Lindbergh Field, which the report said was “located in a zone of very high liquefaction susceptibility.”
Liquefaction was also the major factor in the collapse of both the east and west approaches to the Coronado Bridge. The bridge stood, stranding the Christmans and dozens of other vehicles on the bridge itself, while many fell with the collapse of the approaches and others, as Carter Christman witnessed, drove off the broken ends of the bridge.
These major events, and others, had been suggested by the report, but the crews heading out had no idea what they would find, and physically feared that prospect. Downtown, Matt Bahr stood shakily and started picking a path through the B Street debris that astonished and sickened him, working his way toward Petco Park, wondering what he would find there. He looked at his watch. It was 6:03 p.m.
Journalist, author and educator Michael Grant has been putting his spin on San Diego, and the city putting its spin on him, since 1972. His Web site is at
Local preparedness information is available at the Web site of the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services, http://www.sdcounty.ca.gov/oes/.