stanford ’89 quake story

April 23, 2008 at 8:32 am | | grad life, lab safety

I recently heard a great story from a faculty member about the 1989 earthquake here at Stanford. The quake started around 5 PM and lasted for about 15 seconds.

Just before the quake, two chemistry grad students who were coming into lab after dinner had parked in an illegal space next to the Old Chemistry building, that had been condemned for being earthquake-unsafe. As they shut off the engine, the quake started. Looking at the run-down stone building directly in front of them, the two decided to get out of the car and try to move away from Old Chem. After the earth stopped shaking, this is what remained of their car:

A chimney from Old Chem had crumbled off the roof and landed on their car! They would have been dead if they hadn’t decided to get out of their car. I had seen that picture before, but I didn’t know that people were so close to being killed, and that they were chemists!

The funniest part is that Harden McConnell gave the two students the Department’s Safety Award for getting out of their car that that had parked in a dangerous illegal spot during an earthquake. Genius!

For more info, you can read the Chemistry Department’s history here, or Stanford’s quake pages here. Interesting stuff.


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  1. psh, that’s nothing. WE had an earthquake this past week. In Illinois. The weather above wasn’t bad enough, now we have to worry about the ground below. Why hast thou forsaken us…?

    Comment by excimer — April 23, 2008 #

  2. A few clarifications on the earthquake story. The car belonged to Pratap Malik, who was a McConnell student. Pratap was part of the same entering grad student class as I was. He was warming up the car when the earthquake hit. As I recall from talking to him after the earthquake, it was just him in the car.

    The department chair gave him the dept safety award , which I do not that I ever recall it being given at any other time. We joked about him getting the safety award for parking illegally, but what he got the safety award for was having his wits about him to bail out of his car and get away from the building.

    We also joked about how 16 of the 17 chimneys fell in the 1906 quake and the Loma Prieta quake picked up the spare.
    I was behind a 3000 lb laser table on the first floor of Keck at the time. One of the interesting things was the cars parallel parked in front of old chem. Every other car was shifted over a couple of feet. I wish I had a picture of that.

    I actually was the last person to teach in Old Chem (after it was condemned, the space in the building with the library wasn’t ready yet). It was a bit of a mess after the “wake” for the building the grad students held for it. It was a couple days before I showed up, but the tales of folks jumping out of the old library windows into the dumpster were things of legend. This is not to be confused with the more civilized wake in the history pages.

    John Stankus
    Stanford Ph.D 1992 (Fayer group)
    Post doc IBM Almaden w/ W.E. and Bob Twieg et al

    Comment by John Stankus — June 24, 2008 #

  3. thanks for the first-hand story, John!

    Comment by sam — June 24, 2008 #

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