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THE BAY AREA QUAKE : 5:04 P.M. : A TIME WHEN LIVES CHANGED : Tales of the Quake: Death, Heroes and Luck : Strength to Do the Impossible

October 20, 1989|HECTOR TOBAR

If Lysbet Wright had paused to think about what was happening, if she had stopped to ask whether a slight, middle-aged woman could actually do what she ultimately did, both Wright and her frail, elderly mother might not have escaped Tuesday's earthquake alive.

When the shaking began, they were at home in their Victorian home in Los Gatos, a grand, century-old structure built by a New England railroad magnate. It had survived many temblors--including the devastating 1906 quake--virtually unscathed.

This time however, the old mansion met its match. The wooden walls and floors of the living room collapsed around Wright. An exquisite Steinway piano, a gift from her late father, who had been a concert pianist, slid across the room and smashed against a wall. Two huge bookcases tumbled across the doorway, blocking Wright's exit from a room that had suddenly become a tangle of crumbled floors and fallen beams.

Worse yet, as the home was torn from its concrete foundation, gas lines ruptured. Gas whistled as it rushed from an exposed pipe, threatening to explode.

Trapped in the living room, Wright heard her mother call out in terror from the kitchen where she, too, was imprisoned by debris. At the sound of her mother's cry, Wright said, she suddenly lost control of her emotions and went "insane" with fear.

Though they weighed perhaps five times what she did, Wright pushed apart the heavy bookcases in a blind panic and--to her amazement--opened a path to freedom. She made her way outdoors and found a neighbor who helped her kick in a kitchen window to free her mother. Another neighbor arrived with a wrench and the two shut off the leaking gas.

"When you're panicked, you have more strength," Wright explained cooly as she reflected upon her ordeal.

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