DISASTER

BY GREGORY ANDERSEN : MARINSCOPE/TWIN CITIES OCTOBER 23, 2013

Twenty four years ago, a seemingly near-death experience prompted local pilot Charley Gallagher to take action. Gallagher, then a Tiburon resident, had just exited the Cypress Street Viaduct on Interstate 880 in Oakland, Calif., when a 6.9-magnitude earthquake struck the San Francisco Bay Area on Oct. 17, 1989. He had already paid his toll to cross the Bay Bridge and was accelerating toward the bridge when he felt his car rumble."When I realized I didn’t have a flat tire and saw the bridge was down, I knew something was wrong," Gallagher remembered.

"Just talking about it makes it feel like it was yesterday." When the upper level of the double-deck portion of the Cypress structure gave way, the collapse killed 42 people. Often working in Oakland, Gallagher said he could’ve just as easily been on the freeway at the time of its collapse.

Like so many Bay Area residents of that time, Gallagher has an incredible story and vivid memories of the tragic event that claimed the lives of more than 60 people throughout Northern California. But what separated him from most, was his passion to help others during a time of need.

Shortly after the earthquake – known as the Loma Prieta earthquake due to the epicenter’s location in the Santa Cruz Mountains – Gallagher said he began to suffer from "survivor guilt." "I couldn’t focus on work and was constantly listening to reports on the radio," he said.Yet, it was while he was listening to the radio that Gallagher learned of the relief efforts being organized by Bay Area residents. One effort in particular – an airlift put together by Contra Costa County pilots – caught his attention."I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a great idea,’" he said. "I didn’t realize Watsonville was in need."An aviation insurance broker by day, Gallagher was already plugged into a sizable network of local pilots in the region. In less than 48 hours, and with the help of many pilots and volunteers, he organized the Marin Response Instant Network (MARIN).At a time when cellphones were considered a luxury item and email was but a mere dream, Gallagher utilized a phone tree to coordinate an airlift of 28 planes carrying more than 56,000 pounds of food.

Pilots and organizations from the San Francisco Sheriff’s Air Squadron, the Marin County Air Squadron, Gnoss Field, Oakland, Vacaville and the Marin chapter of the Ninety-Nines volunteered their time and aircraft to the relief effort. The Marin Food Bank, which assisted in gathering the supplies, placed barrels out at supermarkets for contributions from residents.On Sunday, Oct. 22, 1989, the loaded planes, traveling in sets of five, took off from Hamilton Field in Novato and landed in Watsonville, just south of Santa Cruz.According to Gallagher, relief from the federal government couldn’t be delivered because of Watsonville’s undersized airport, as the downward force generated by the helicopters delivering supplies was reportedly causing additional damage to the area. And although the actual delivery process was only a matter of minutes, he said the experience was unforgettable."We were able to do things others couldn’t with a small airport," he said. "It was pretty cool. Planes were pulled by hand [after landing]. It was quick, unload and go."Looking back on the earthquake and the events that followed, Gallagher said he’s proud of Marin for stepping up to the plate."Deep down, people in Marin recognize they have something special," he said. "We all want to help, and this was just another way of contributing."But Gallagher’s comments nearly two-and-a-half decades ago are, perhaps, the most telling of all.In a Novato Advance article, dated Oct. 25, 1989, Gallagher was quoted by then reporter Alfie Jay about his orchestrating of the airlift:"Now that the mechanism is in place, next time if there is a need, we will be able to move even more quickly."Preparing for disasterIn 1989, Charley Gallagher had the foresight to recognize a need for emergency preparedness.

In the years that followed the Loma Prieta Earthquake, Marin County would take numerous steps to ensure the region’s safety during a major emergency or natural disaster, most notably the formation of the Marin Emergency Radio Authority in 1998.MERA, a Joint Powers Authority consisting of 25 member agencies and several other public partners, was established to implement and manage an emergency radio system for all members in Marin. The member agencies include all police and fire agencies in the county, as well as other public works entities.Considered the "backbone of the 911 emergency response system," MERA provides the communications link between public safety dispatch centers and public safety units in the field that respond during emergencies, Central Marin Police Chief Todd Cusimano said.Much like Gallagher’s Marin Instant Response Network (MARIN), MERA was established as a necessary mechanism to combat and overcome even the greatest of natural disasters.Marin has also made strides in educating the public about how to respond during a crisis, as the county recently participated in the 2013 Great California ShakeOut Earthquake Drill. Created in 2008, the worldwide drills are a way for individuals, schools and other organizations to practice what to do to survive an earthquake and what to do when the shaking stops.More than 15 million people around the globe registered to participate in this year’s drill, which was held Oct. 17 at 10:17 a.m. in honor of the 24th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake, which killed 63 people and injured more than 3,700.The earthquake caused an estimated $6 billion in damages.

Around the globe, images of the collapsed section of the Bay Bridge and confusion at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, hosting Game 3 of the 1989 World Series, illustrated the devastation in Northern California. Power and water outages and severe traffic issues also persisted for weeks.Last week, employees of Marin’s government offices and students and teachers around the county took part in the annual drill. Workers at the Marin County Civic Center practiced their "drop, cover and hold on" routines, huddling together under tables, while students from Sausalito to Novato followed suit.Gallagher, who now resides in Corte Madera, said he supports the recent efforts to educate the public, noting how isolated the region could be in the event of a disaster. "One day, Marin could be on the receiving end of one of these [earthquakes]," he said. "And if the bridges go out, we could be an island. We need to be prepared and have the readiness in order." Gallagher said what stood out to him most about the airlift to Watsonville was how seamless the organization was and how easily it all came together. "Everything worked," he said. "Nobody ever said, ‘No.’"Led by an unsuspecting hero, the pilots of Hamilton collectively received the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s Pilot of the Year award for their efforts following the 1989 earthquake. "It was a great moment; a 15 minutes [of fame] kind of thing," Gallagher said. "I had an opportunity to be a part of something important and I’m glad I was."