A friendship born of the chaos of Loma Prieta
By Lou Fancher
When the Loma Prieta earthquake struck on Oct. 17, 1989, Mike Price was at Candlestick Park, eager for the third World Series game between the Oakland A's and the San Francisco Giants. He knew exactly where Leslie Price, his wife of two years would be -- on the eastbound span of the Bay Bridge.
"My wife leaves work right at five. When I heard the Bay Bridge had come down, I knew. The worst fears came up. I knew she was dead," he said in a recent interview.
Next to him in the kitchen of their Moraga home, Leslie -- very much alive -- recalls stopping her car just shy of the 50-foot section of the bridge that collapsed.
"We got out of our cars and a guy next to me said, 'If the bridge is falling, Candlestick is toast.' I told him my husband was there and he said, 'I'm sorry, he's gone.'"
Separated by 20 miles and an ocean of fear, Mike and Leslie shared one thought -- "I've got to get home."
Twenty-five years after Loma Prieta, life has changed a lot for the Prices, who now live in Moraga. But some things haven't changed, including their unlikely friendship with a Walnut Creek woman, Karen Guarisco, whom Leslie met in the chaos of that October night.
The very long road home
For Mike Price, the journey home to Walnut Creek was a
five-hour pinnacle-to-valley experience. Minutes after "a shaking like I've never felt shaking," the Fresno native and thousands of baseball fans cheered, thrilled to
have survived a "Big One." In an age without cell phones, a transistor radio soon plunged the crowd into shocked silence, delivering news of a fire in San Francisco's Marina district and the collapse of the Cypress structure on Highway 880 and portions of the Bay Bridge.
"The blimp overhead turned toward the city and we could see smoke," Mike said. "It took me five hours to get home. I was crying, praying. I just knew Leslie was gone."
Leslie, having left work a few minutes early to make a hair appointment in Lafayette, had just passed Treasure Island when the quake hit. At first, she thought she had a flat tire.
"I was bouncing from two wheels to two wheels. We were all bouncing," she remembers. Drivers stopped, but when the bouncing ended, everyone started driving again. Reaching a dark, dusty place where traffic was again halted, Leslie got out of her car.
"People were screaming, saying the bridge was falling like dominoes. I remember thinking this is it -- Mike's dead, I'm going to die -- and how sad our parents would be. My one regret was that I had not had a child."
Eventually, Leslie turned her car around, driving the wrong way to exit and get on the westbound portion of
Mike and Leslie Price are photographed in the backyard of their Moraga, Calif. home on Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014. Their Walnut Creek home was damaged in the the bridge heading back into San Francisco. Reaching her office where everyone had left, the power out and water seeping everywhere, Leslie collapsed, hyperventilating and in shock.
"We saw this precious girl who was running, knocking on windows and frantic. She just crumpled in a heap," said Guarisco, a Walnut Creek resident who'd been on a rare shopping trip to San Francisco.
'Like a war zone'
"I never went to the city, but we were in a makeup shop when it hit -- bottles and polish went flying. Outside, it was devastating," Guarisco said.
Guarisco and her friends were praying in their car when they spotted Leslie and rushed to her rescue. One of the women knew an acquaintance in Pacific Heights.
They drove blackened streets where people were looting and helicopters were hovering overhead (It was "surreal, like being in a war zone," Guarisco said). Eventually they reached the tiny one-bedroom apartment filled with strangers.
"We had intermittent phone service and took turns calling people," Leslie remembers.
Leslie, learning Candlestick hadn't collapsed, left a message at her home and called a friend. A daisy chain of calls from Pleasant Hill to Los Angeles to Leslie's parents in Big Sky, Mont. to a neighbor in Walnut Creek brought news to Mike that Leslie had survived. She spent the night in the city, sharing a collective, candlelit meal with apartment dwellers and the "three women who were like angels."
Twenty-five years later, Leslie and Mike are the parents of two boys (their first son's due date was ironically Oct. 17).
They now have emergency supplies and plans in place, but don't operate based on fear.
"I remember being at peace while thinking I was going to die," Leslie says. "I don't fear death after that day."
Said Mike, "I don't take our relationship for granted."
Guarisco and Leslie say they definitely experienced post-traumatic stress, and for months were unable to cross the re-opened bridge or ignore trembles caused by passing trucks or fans stomping their feet at athletic events.
"After that, I realized I wasn't in control," Guarisco says. "Something that big showed me we're one earthquake away from disaster. How can you prepare for that?"
The four women had reunions for the first few years after the quake, before busy schedules caused them to drift apart. Having met amid disaster 25 years ago and eager to reunite in 2014, they say that celebrating life together as strangers has led them to be friends forever.