SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — This week marks the 28-year anniversary of the Loma Prieta Earthquake that killed over 60 people and injured thousands in the Bay Area.
The earthquake registered a magnitude of 6.9 and changed the lives of many including former San Francisco Fire Captain Gerry Shannon.
Shannon became a hero that night when he saved 56-year-old woman Sherra Cox from a burning apartment building in San Francisco.
The fire captain had to use two different chainsaws to free Cox from her building before it burnt to the ground. Shannon’s story is featured in a new Smithsonian Channel series called “Make It Out Alive.” This six-part series focuses on people who survived both natural and man-made disasters.
Shannon spoke with CBS Local’s DJ Sixsmith about what he remembers from the night of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, how he and Cox made it out of the building alive and why that night changed his life forever.
DJ Sixsmith: When I say October 17th, 1989 what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
Gerry Shannon: I get a kind of tightness in my chest. I picture that fire that ended up signaling the fifth alarm. I think about that whole insanity of that evening and what preempted it and our view coming down the hill in the firetruck. It looked like a war zone.
DS: There was a woman stuck in the house when you got there. Her name was Sherra Cox. What were you thinking when you first heard her voice?
GS: It was confusing because everyone was telling me not to go into the building. They didn’t even want me going near it. Hearing her voice was confusing to me because I had no idea what to do, there was no game plan.
DS: Sherra was crushed inside the house and couldn’t move because her hip and pelvis were shattered. You had to cut her out with two chainsaws. How did you deal with the fear of that fight or flight moment?
GS: It’s funny that you use that phrase fight or flight because that is exactly what kicks in. You have to rationalize that this is your insurance policy and it’s time to pay it off. You have to get in the mindset and it doesn’t sound right, but you don’t want to think.
DS: The whole theme of this series documenting heroes on the Smithsonian Channel is making it out alive. How did you, Sherra and your team make it out of the house alive in 1989?
GS: I think somebody up there likes us because there were times I was thinking about how am I going tell my kids all this stuff. You have to keep focused on what you need to do. You cannot let your mind wander and start thinking about whether or not you will make it out. Once I made contact with Sherra, heard her voice and grabbed her hand, you can’t leave.
DS: What was the scariest part of the whole experience?
GS: It was when I got in there and realized now I’m in. Once we cut through where she was, my chainsaw went dull and I had to sit back and wait for another chainsaw. I started to think that this place is full of gas and one spark could blow this whole place up. There was a time for a minute or two that I was leaning up against the wall and watching the place get brighter and brighter.
DS: Once you guys finally got out and Sherra was on her way to the ambulance, she stopped because she wanted to know your last name. She called you her hero. What did it mean to you that you saved her life?
GS: It meant everything that night and the 20 years that it was my privilege to know her. I got to know who she was in that moment when she had herself wedged against the entrance of the ambulance. They were trying to get her in and she said I’m not going in there until I get his last name. Sherra lost everything and she told me it was just stuff.
DS: How did that day and those moments in the house change your life?
GS: I was a bouncer in a bar playing softball and all of that stopped. Everything changed. I just wanted to be a better person and learned a lot from Sherra. I started going to meditation retreats. All of the things that I thought were valuable didn’t mean anything. My family meant a whole lot more.
Episode two of the series entitled “San Francisco Earthquake” airs this Sunday, October 22nd at 9pm EST/6PM PST on the Smithsonian Channel. The Smithsonian Channel is a joint venture between CBS Corporation’s Showtime Networks, Inc. and the Smithsonian Institution.