For this issue of Full Speed Ahead, we sit down with Keith Stahnke, operations and maintenance manager for the San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA). On October 17, 1989, Keith was a ferry captain for Blue & Gold Fleet. When the Loma Prieta earthquake struck, Keith and fellow captains jumped into action, shuttling stranded passengers from San Francisco back home to the East Bay after a section of the Bay Bridge collapsed and BART was closed. In this interview, Keith shares his memories from that day, including how Loma Prieta was a pivotal moment for ferry service in the Bay Area and how WETA is prepared today to respond to natural disasters and emergencies.
Interviewer: What were you doing when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck?
Keith: I was a ferry captain for Blue and Gold Fleet at the time. We were just off of Aquatic Park, nearing the end of a bay cruise. When the earthquake hit, we felt it on the water and it was really unusual. It felt like we were being lifted up and down three or four feet, not like the gentle rolling or pitching that you might normally experience on a boat. It was fairly short, but it was definitely noticeable on the water.
Interviewer: What happened next?
Keith: Before this, we had few meetings with the city about earthquake response, but we didn’t have a coordinated plan. Right after the earthquake, I took the boat down to the Ferry Building and there was just a mass of people. I wasn’t sure where they were going – at first, I thought they might be Larkspur passengers waiting for the Golden Gate Ferry. Over the PA, I asked people to raise their hands if they wanted to go to Oakland, and everybody rose their hand. So we loaded the boat to max capacity, 400 passengers, and took them to Oakland.
Interviewer: What’s the difference between 1989 and now? Today, how is WETA prepared to respond to an emergency?
Keith: In 1989, there were six ferry boats operating on four routes in the Bay Area. Now we have 24 ferries on 10 routes, plus the additional growth of private vessels. We have much greater capacity today in terms of number of vessels and landside facilities. WETA participates in trainings and exercises with the State Office of Emergency Services, San Francisco Department of Emergency Management, and other response agencies. We also coordinate with the other transit agencies to plan and prepare. Now it's a regional coordinated effort of preparedness and planning and we're so much better prepared to respond.