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October 20, 1989|AL MARTINEZ

It was past midnight and I was still awake, trying to remember the names of people I knew who might have been using Interstate 880 when it collapsed in Oakland.

I kept wondering who would have been driving on the bottom deck about that time, sweating out the commute traffic to San Francisco or Berkeley.

Who would have been there when the freeway fell, crushing and killing with such precipitance that there was no time for a last scream or even a final terrifying awareness of what was happening?

It's Wednesday morning as I write, the day after the earthquake, and I'm still wondering. Not many years ago, I might have been there myself.

That elevated route of interestate along Cypress was one I must have taken hundreds of times when I wrote for the Oakland Tribune.

I'd get on the Nimitz downtown, bear the jam of traffic through the interchange and hope it would clear up on the Eastshore before the University Avenue off-ramp.

Now the route to the interchange is gone, slapped out of existence like mom flicking a fly off the sugar bowl.

Now it's tangled steel and concrete, and there are cars and dead people in the mass of destruction.

But who?

One knew from the start this was more than a tremor that shakes dishes loose. I got the news like everyone else: watching the World Series game about to begin.

My first concern was for family. My daughter lives in Oakland, not all that far from the freeway that collapsed. She was in Sacramento for the day, but drove home when she heard about the earthquake.

She called at 11 o'clock Tuesday night.

"I can't believe this," she said, her voice trembling. She was about to cry. "It looks like a bomb exploded. Every dish and glass is broken. Every book and flower pot is on the floor. Remember that yellow shelf near the kitchen? It's completely cracked in two. The building literally shifted."

As she spoke, I clicked the sound off of television. Silent pictures flashed on the screen. Fire in the Marina. Disaster on the Bay Bridge. Death on the 880. Words were unnecessary.

Zombie-eyed crowds at Candlestick Park walked away from the stadium in stunned amazement, and then looked back, as though whatever had jarred their lives with such terrible force might be following.

Scenes of fear and destruction danced on the soundless screen, and always the cameras came back to 880.

"I called your sisters," my daughter was saying. "They're all right. They worried about Kathy because she takes the 880 home. But she worked late that one night. That one night!"

Kathy is my niece. By sheer caprice, she had missed by minutes that sudden, roaring, cataclysmic crash of concrete that caught others as they drove or waited or sighed with frustration in the traffic on 880.

Why them and not Kathy? By whose hand are the dice tossed? Why work late that one night of the year and not others? Who chooses?

I watched television most of the night. A lot of us did down here. More than a fault line links L.A. with the Bay Area. We're a part of them. They're a part of us. Our daughters live up there. Their fathers live down here.

The phone rang more than once as I watched the same scenes replayed and heard the same snatches of reporting repeated until they became one amazed litany of death and survival, of fire and darkness.

Friends who had lived in Oakland called to exchange names. We wondered together who might have been northbound on 880 when the world ended.

I remember watching L.A. in pain almost 20 years ago. I was in Oakland when Sylmar twisted and freeways went down. L.A. was dying and there was nothing we could do.

Southern California survived, of course. The dead were buried, the injured made well and the structures rebuilt.

That'll happen in the Bay Area too.

The Marina will rebuild, the bridge will be re-linked . . . and Freeway 880 will be pried apart. And then we'll know who those people are . . . and where they were going . . . and who will never stop missing them.

I covered brush fires in L.A. a few years ago. An image remains fixed in my memory. A woman stood crying near the smoke and haze. Her home had been spared and her family was safe, but deep sobs shook her body. I asked a man with her why she was crying. He said, "She's just crying for everybody."

I guess I am too.

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