Chapter Fifty-Five+ Bonus E/Q


“Seismic eruption 
pent-up energy unloads 
a cruel motherlode.”


“Then haul you some line…”

“But, she…I…”

“Cmon, shake it or bake it, chief. We got hose to run.”

“She’s in there, I’m tellin’ you! Was on the second floor!”

“What second floor? There are no more damn floors…”

It took burrowing through the thickened crowd, this craning, gasping party to some savage crime wave, but I crept along a few steps at a time to get the bigger picture. Marooned on a center island, I could see how cars clogged Fillmore Street, from its steep hill up to Broadway down to Marina Boulevard, angling, shivving, no longer bothering to honk, gridlock ruling every intersection in between.

Further whipping up the tumult, newscopters strafed the District, dodging Coast Guard choppers over the flat, florrid bay, surveying Loma Prieta’s hell to pay, from Mount Diablo to Devil’s Slide on down. From here, the seismic strike almost looked clean and surgical, much of the Marina seemed to have come through unscathed. But what took hits took megahits, many buildings collapsed and cascading like crab baskets into the streets. Joists knuckled, chimneys caved, leaving this combination equity-fat retirement village and yuppie ghetto desperately in the lurch.

En route, I had seen four-story apartment buildings folded like circus tents to but two or three upper floors, crushing long-term tenants, house pets, garaged cars—anyone or thing so shortsighted as to have chosen lower rent over a view. Charming six-figure matchboxes snapped like stick figures off their slab foundations, some twisting grotesquely and downsliding into heavy traffic, some already being bulldozer demolished. Others knelt for forgiveness into the Marina’s narrow, winding side streets—many now clogged thoroughly with haphazard piles of paste-white and pastel alluvium, slats upon slats of redwood walls. Whatever didn’t lean one way seemed to pitch the other.

Bay windows already stood shored up with 2x4s and more to keep the worst hit from shifting any further, stucco cracking, crumbling, peeling away sorely as summer’s first day-long burn. Once killer addresses were now leveled heaps of lath, brickface, Spanish tiles, tarpaper-tacking siding, pretzeled fire escapes and garage doors flapping like clothes on the line; pavement split and threshed as though too thick a pie crust over too little mincemeat filling. Some of the worst had plowed well out onto outer Fillmore, dead ahead. One in particular splintered entirely too close to home, as the SFFD battalion commander had firmly confirmed.

“Earthquake weather…aint I been sayin its earthquake weather?”

“This heat swelled everything up down there,” replied another dazed Marina elder, sidestepping a gray primordial mud stenching forth from what had been a P.G.&E. splice box.

“Think it has something to do with the two-tone plates, but when the real Big One hits, this whole placell go down…”

“Thats tectonic plates, lamo—shifting tectonic plates. What you think were dealing with here, a 55 Chevy Bel-Air?”

Still flaming and smoldering fires soaked up all the water dehydrated firefighters could muster, from cherrypickers, gerryrigged hosing, portable hydrants and makeshift pumps, eventually carrying neighborhood alluvion as far as Fillmore. There it dovetailed with an oily flow of muck down from Cervantes, roughly between Beach and Northpoint, and more precisely between my soaked and old, splinter-ripped blue Etonic running shoes, here where I went toe-to-toe with the ruins.

To now, her home had been an off-tone green stucco two-flat with arching, recessed doorways and black window shutters that matched its ornamental wrought iron faux balcony trim. The pastry box’s redeeming charm was how it tucked so swimmingly between twin four-story apartment houses, massive sand tan Mediterranean-style buildings sporting Moorish pantiled turrets and barbicans, imposing castillo-solid bookends that appeared impervious to any and all manner of sacking or onslaught. And hold they did, save for some surface cracking and falling terra cotta tiles. It was hardly their burden that this so strongly flanked runt would fall like failed layer cake out an oven door.

“We’ve got to get her out of there…”

“Right, her and a hundred neighbors,” said the full gear batcom, finishing a gratis sodium dog from over at Frankophile’s on Chestnut Street. “Ease up, thats what were doing here.”

“Then I’m goin’ in too…”

“I told you, unless you know emergency medical or heavy rescue, youre not going anywhere.”

“But I’ve got to do something. Christ, why this, why now!”

“Want to do something? Head over to Divisadero and haul some line.”

Little wonder the flat was a short-term steal. Its For Lease sign had pointed upstairs, where an aged Italian brother and sister team—never wed, never would—lorded over the place they’d grown up in with the residual grace of designated parish mourners. Now look at them, three floors of memories heaped into a ground-floor moraine across from the Middle School. I kicked bitterly at the red-tagged rubble of 3471 Fillmore; it kicked back, a jagged length of lath slicing the remainder of my torn shoe up to the foam padded tongue. Stretching to either side were banks of other, wavering apartment buildings, rent dull and uneven as bad lower teeth, some bay windows trilling and bay windows beetled to where book could be made on which addresses would hang tough through the post-quake pocket. But there was no doubting 3471—it had all the structural integrity of a Sunbelt savings and loan.

“Divisadero?! No way,” I muttered, and resumed stabbing at the gagging mess. “I should have been here before, and damned if I’m leaving her now.”

“Coming through,” said another fireman, returning to the collapse with axes and hand saws, a long yellow flashlight swinging from his neck, its hard plastic handle scraping against the reflective hand around the hem of his black turnout coat.

“Feel that?” I jumped at the rumble of a comparatively modest four-point aftershock, giving way to a fire assessment team trickling over from priority-one situations on Scott and Jefferson Streets.

“Were in a dangerous three-day pocket right now,” said the team leader lieutenant, as he guided their way. “No tellin how many more will hit, or how hard.”

Neighbor Paolinas’ long, lonely vigil had been reduced to scabrous clumps of wall plaster, thorny shards of kindling lath while they had gone pasta and antipasto shopping in North Beach family delis. Window drapes tangled with ceiling insulation, which swabbed around wall framing that had snapped clean as garlic breadsticks, adding to a fetid, vapory one-and-half store pile. Scattered wardrobes, threadbare throw rugs, and kitchen cabinets purging stale fatty foods. An oddly intact roof sandwiched the whole shabby mess—concealing what had accumulated in their ground floor garage over several generations. All the better to obscure what little I myself had gathered over a scant few months.

“You’re saying the whole Marina could go up in a flash? So what the hell am I…”

“Then get a move on,” the batcom replied, tossing me a halligan as the others bored ahead. “Work the edges, lets see if anybodys really in there.”

“I’m not lying, she’s got to be in there,” I cried, picking around splintered, dust choked wood and stucco. “Where else would she be?! Jesus, there’s another shaker…”

“Get you sea legs, amigo. Were standing on custard here.”

Fault lines, building pressure, imperceptibly undermining reputedly solid ground. Then, out of the blue, a violent, rolling shake with resulting liquefaction. Power poles still swayed, trolley wires whiplashed out to Marina Boulevard, where a lone trolley coach sat stalled 135 degrees into the 22 Fillmore route turnaround, MUNI service to the District still spotty at best. I froze in my tracks at the sight of the 2 Cervantes apartment house horseshoed well out into the intersection—sagging severely, snuffing lives, generating enough frictional energy to immolate that 12-pump, multi-bay service station across the way.

So I chomped my lip, drop kicked some stucco and cursed the moment I had caved in and moved her in, not to mention the realization that seven months remained on her lease. Sweating out those aftershocks, steeling my sea legs, I vice-gripped the pry bar, took to picking at clumped plaster as if boiled cabbage on a school lunch tray. Poking into the Paolina’s residual sediment was like sifting through their hamper. Amid the dust laden wreckage, I unearthed shawls, TV trays, family albums and bureau drawers before finally hitting upon a dense patch of splintered lath and floorboards, which upon persistent probing revealed some leading indicators of my personal first floor losses.

The biggest thing to Marina proper since the 1915 Pan-Pacific Exposition had come to bury everything, even her charts, texts and picture frames. But troubled as I was by what had been lost, a more terrifying prospect was what might yet be found. Building pressure, sudden thrust, resulting liquefaction. From our very first feazing encounter, it had become such a discernible pattern over time…

“Step aside, I said, were haulin through,” shouted a captain firefighter, rushing his crew back to the collapse before us, through the dust and acrid smoke, even more fully equipped, doing heavy tool haul and relay hose drill from their streetside engine company pumpers.

“Okay, jokers, lets prioritize,” his second in command lieutenant said, small chainsaw in hand. “Cats eye fires, gas, overhead rafters—were going in…”

“Extrication, right,” asked his fellow junior captain, manning an exhaust fan and wedge blocks.

“Some talk, but not an affirmative yet…”

“Then we better bring the Jaws and jacks,” a third nodded, having adjusted the pumpers pressure valves. “Ill grab the sound sensors and laser finder…”

“Im radioing the parameds,” shouted their team driver from the cab. “Theyd have the de-fib and plaz in the event, but sure as shit theyre backed up something fierce.”

Sudden after tremor: what remained of the building creaked, shifted, scalding hot water momentarily pouring down from a ruptured pipe above, dousing a small radiant flame-up. A strong odor of dimethyl disulfide emanated from the gaseous pile, burning the eyes of first responders and morbid rubberneckers who had been gathering about the scene—seemingly everybody short of the shattered Paolinas and a hell-shocked MIA named Richard Muntz. Facing this smoldering, ill-defined rubble, the firemen cinched up their turn-outs and red and white on black hard helmets, donned dust masks against drywall, asbestos, lath, plaster and any infectious matter.

I could overhear them going over their triad maneuver, how one would pry clear a path into the heaps, another cut and chainsaw deeper into a pile that would most possibly have buried one casualty or more, like gophers burrowing into paydirt, with a third plowing a wider tailback for critical escapes. That was where I offered to make myself useful, by prying as best I could into their business.

“Yo, lets brace and bore…” The crew readied, washing down small sandwiches from the reopened Safeway deli with cold cans of Jolt cola.

“C’mon, gents, lift and unload…”

So in they went, straight off searching for hidden leaks and shut-off valves, digging away lathe, plaster and all jumbled manner of household debris, to reach the heavier going and any bad situations. Yelling, banging, poking in holes, sniffing like cadaver dogs, the firefighters crawled hands and knees through bedding, couches, jagged dishes and dust-grimed drapery. Breathless and coughing, the forward pair gradually reached framing under the halo of quartz emergency lights, hammers pounding, chainsaw chewing away. They in due course slid aside remnants of doorways, down to wall studs and cross beams, which was about when they came upon the hand.

Wrinkled and gnarled, turning to purple blue, it bore a topaz Cassini ring on its finger, the firemen yelled out. Trouble was, the clutching paw appeared to be beneath a section of floorboard or wooden room door with a major support beam resting at an angle atop that, like a paper weight on a stack of invoices, surrounded by a two-foot high berm of debris, wires and jagged glass snaking out all around. We stood frozen and gripped by the dozens as those two dirt divers took hack and chainsaw to the timber, their number three back-up relayed their play by play with shouts and laughing banter designed to encourage them and placate the crowd.

“They found her?” I edged closer to the batcom for a better, less glaring view—of what, I hadn’t a clue—only the slashing flashlight panning down there deep inside.

“Found something,” the batcom replied, ear to his squawking two-way, remaining cautiously non committal.

“Must be her, right?” I opted for cautious optimism.

“Hold steady, chief. Dont get too jacked…”

Which was precisely what their tailback said the ground crew was doing, taking their irons and chain saw to a tongue and grooved hunk of unhinged door amid the peril of stray gas and sparks. Their plan was to split that teetering panel, gaining access to the weightier obstruction immediately below it, then what, god forbid, might lie beneath that.

This ostensibly involved cramming a small hydraulic jack under a corner of the dismembered floorboard, pump raising it inch by creaking inch, and shoring up the sucker with wedge blocks and errant lengths of 2x4s. The result: a dank, airless 18-inch crawl space that the lead lieutenant’s flashlight beam could barely penetrate, for all the soggy fabric and boxes surrounding and impeding them, soot and dust that their compact exhaust fan couldn’t begin to dislodge.

“Christ, what was that,” I tugged anxiously at the commander’s turnout sleeve with the slight shifting of the heap overall.

“Relax, my men are just chopping through, clearing away some rubble for their actual search and rescue operation.”

“R-r-right, rescue,” I sniffed, so much methyl mercaptan in the air. “But I smell gas…”

“When you no longer smell it, thats when were in trouble,” said the batcom, adjusting the volume on his radio, glancing at the clear, calm skies. “When what youd really want to worry about is the wind kicking up and radiant fires jumping blocks.”

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