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In a photograph taken by the US Geographical Survey a house destroyed by the Loma Prieta earthquake of 17th October 1989 keels over at a drunken angle.

USA – An Earth-Shattering Experience

This house north of Santa Cruz, California, was destroyed by the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, as photographed by the US Geological Survey. Neville Denson from St Bees in Cumbria was driving nearby when the earthquake struck. He recalls how it felt in the following piece, which won our Wildest Travel Story Competition.

‘I’d picked-up the hire car only a couple of hours earlier and after striding nonchalantly and knowingly from the office to the vehicle found myself on the passenger side and had to feign chivalry by calling my wife over and holding the door open for her. Now, it lurched and slid scarily across the road.

‘A puncture, I thought, gripping the steering wheel tighter. No, the steering’s gone. Can’t be that: it’s responding, but strangely. Then it was like driving with four flat tyres on a corrugated road surface. My wife was almost hysterical and thought I’d ‘flipped’ on my first driving experience in the USA.

‘Boulders, trees, earth slid, tumbled and bounced down the mountainside, spilling and crashing on to the tarmac. The road was buckling. It was twisting; it was cracking and opening up. In some places it formed an inverted ‘V’ with a crack along the top – just as though some great force had pushed the asphalt from either side.

‘I know my wife to be well versed in the scriptures but the list of Biblical characters whose aid she invoked impressed me greatly.

‘After what seemed like an age the car stopped, responding at last to my braking. In reality this experience lasted 20–30 seconds.

‘We were on Highway 17 in the Santa Cruz mountains in California.

‘The radio presenter intoned in a very laid-back way, ‘It seems there’s been another rumble round the Bay’, and returned to his music.

‘Was this really happening?

‘As I gingerly and disbelievingly picked my way down this boulder-, tree- and soil-strewn road with its countless cracks, gaps, twists and buckles, the radio continued to reassure us that the world was still in one piece. But something told me that the song about to come over the airwaves was inappropriate. It was the introductory bars. Something odd here, I thought. Then the voice of Frank Sinatra ‘….And now, the end is near – and as I face the final curtain…’. ‘My Way’. The line between tragedy and comedy is, indeed, a fine one and I realized what a tragic happening this could be. Yet I couldn’t help but see the funny side as I continued to dodge the frightening obstacles on the highway, even though this particular ‘rumble round the Bay’ turned out to be the biggest earthquake in California since 1906, registering a sharp 7.1 on the Richter scale, and we were within 10 kilometres of its epicentre. It was 17th October 1989.

‘We spent that night with a kindly Mexican family, who insisted on us taking the main bedroom. The following morning we found they had all eight slept together on the floor, saying that if they were going to go, they would all go together.

‘Our “holiday” had started on Friday, 13th October. My wife had been reluctant to fly on this date – tempting providence.

‘This wasn’t the welcome we’d expected on our first American visit, but I still smile secretly at my marital success in persuading my wife not to insist on getting the next flight home.’

Neville Denson,

St Bees,

30th August 2019.

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