How Many People Died in the 1989 Earthquake?

March 13, 2024

The 1989 earthquake was a stark reminder of California’s vulnerability to seismic activity. Sixty-three people died, thousands more were injured and the damage cost $6 billion. Thirty years later, scientists have a chilling warning: Loma Prieta was just the warm-up.

On October 17, 1989, UC Santa Cruz graduate student Harold Tobin was walking out the back door of the Earth Science building when the ground began to shake. The rattling lasted for just 15 seconds or so, but it felt like an eternity. The buildings shook, and the majestic redwood trees for which the campus is known dripped.

The 6.9-magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake was the most significant to strike the Bay Area in more than 60 years. It was centered in the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park near Loma Prieta Peak in the Santa Cruz Mountains, northeast of Santa Cruz and approximately 60 miles (100 km) south of San Francisco. The shock triggered a slip along the San Andreas Fault and had a maximum Modified Mercalli intensity of IX (Violent).

Much of the damage and most of the fatalities occurred when sections of elevated freeways collapsed during the quake. The most severe damage was at the Cypress Viaduct, a double-deck freeway in Oakland, which collapsed, killing 42 people. A section of the upper deck of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco also collapsed onto the lower deck, closing the bridge and adding to the death toll.

To determine the number of deaths caused by the earthquake, USGS scientists examined coroner and medical examiner records for 15 days after the quake from seven California counties. The researchers classified each death as directly earthquake-related or indirectly earthquake-related.

Mission

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