Oakland remembers earthquake, Cypress collapse

on October 18, 2009

Ruthann Liu-Johnston brought her red high-heeled shoes to the anniversary ceremony yesterday—not on her feet, but as remembrances. Liu-Johnston was wearing those the day the Cypress Freeway collapsed out from under her.

Johnston joined city officials at Cypress Freeway Memorial Park as part of a city-sponsored commemoration called “Reflect. Honor. Prepare: Commemorating the 20th Anniversary of the Loma Prieta Earthquake.” She can no longer wear her red shoes, due to severe ankle and spinal injuries she sustained during the earthquake, but it has not stopped her from hanging onto the pair for 20 years.

The crowd gathered at West Oakland’s Cypress Freeway Memorial Park looked on in amazement as Johnston produced the shoes, describing the way her rescuers had taken them off her feet after pulling her from her car, and mailed them to her in the weeks that followed the quake.

“Twenty years ago, I woke up and I got dressed and thought ‘I’m going to wear these shoes, and I hope that I never get caught in an earthquake in these because I can barely walk in these on flat ground,’” Johnston said.

Johnston stood alongside Lenora Moy, a fellow survivor and one of the women who rescued Johnston by pulling her from her car after the freeway collapsed.  Until this week, the women had not seen each other for 20 years.  “The last time I saw her, she was in the back of a flatbed truck being transferred to the hospital,” said Moy, smiling back at Johnston. “All these years I’ve thought of her often, but couldn’t remember her name. I’ve always thought of her as the lady with the red shoes.”

Johnston’s story is a testament to the impact of that day – the damage caused, the lives lost, and the awareness that it could happen again. City leaders reminded the audience of more than 100 people that emergencies can happen at any time.

Prior to the ceremony, participants could visit information displays or explore emergency vehicles as part of an information fair.  Displays providing information from Communities of Oakland Respond to Emergencies (CORE), Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA), and Oakland Fire & Rescue services were dotted amongst the flashing lights of emergency vehicles used to block traffic in the western lane of Mandela Parkway for the ceremony.

“We need to save our city now,” said District 4 Councilmember Jean Quan, from behind a red podium fashioned to resemble the back end of an Oakland Fire Department truck. Citing the damage that could potentially ensue given the number of homes, Quan said 26,000 units currently need retrofitting in Oakland. “This is our Katrina,” she said.

Quan said that she and District 3 Councilmember Nancy Nadel, who also addressed the crowd, are working with the federal government to obtain loans for people looking to retrofit their homes.

Fire Chief Gerald Simon also urged citizens to be prepared. “I sometimes cannot believe how many times I’ve heard people say at the end of a disaster, ‘I never thought it would happen to me,’” he said outfitted in dress uniform to mark the solemn nature of the day.

Chief Simon recommended three things community members can do to ensure their preparedness: having a plan, preparing an emergency supply kit, and joining a neighborhood Communities of Oakland Respond to Emergencies (CORE) group. “As your fire chief, I can assure you that it can happen to you,” he said.

Mayor Ron Dellums, dressed in dark memorial attire, invited community members involved in the rescue operations of the Cypress collapse to come forward. As he spoke, several citizens emerged from the crowd, to the swell of applause. The mayor paused in his speech to shake hands with each of them. “This spirit of giving is what makes a community resilient and allows us to thrive,” he said.

The ceremony culminated with a reading of the 42 names of the lives lost in the freeway’s collapse. After Chief Simon announced each name, a woman rang a silver bell, and its tones resonated through the still air.  The ceremony concluded with an a capella version of “God Bless America,” sung by Oakland Firefighter Wale Forrester. As Forrester launched into the last refrain, one by one, audience members added their voices to the impromptu choir.

“I got a little teary-eyed,” said Marian Sylvestre, who attended the ceremony.  “I thought it was wonderful to recognize the ordinary people who came to the rescue.”

Sylvestre herself was involved with the response operations after the quake, when she managed Red Cross operations in downtown Oakland, as she does today.  She said she found the ceremony appropriately community-oriented. “It wasn’t a lot of pomp and circumstance,” she said.

After the ceremony, Johnston smiled at Moy, standing beside her, and told reporters, “I’m so glad to meet my rescuer.” Coincidentally, the women had narrowly missed meeting each other when Johnston worked with Moy’s sister years before in the Emergency Services office, but neither woman knew just how small their world was until earlier this week.

Of the trauma of that day, Johnston said her healing is ongoing, “It’s like a broken vase,” she said. “Once you have those scars there, it’s forever.”

Photo by Basil D Soufi
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