On Tuesday, October 17, 1989, at 5:04 p.m., a 7.1 earthquake hit the Santa Cruz area, sending shockwaves through the Bay Area and killing 63 people. Fr. Prietto was jogging at the time and recalls that “the jolt of the earthquake was so strong it literally knocked me off my feet.” Power went out all over the city, including SI, which was spared significant damage. (A few books fell from bookshelves in the library and several glass beakers broke in the labs.) Three high-rise towers in Parkmerced did not prove as fortunate, and residents had to be evacuated. Capt. Michael Yalon ’66, then in charge of the Taraval Police Station, told Sgt. Matthew Perez to find shelter for these residents. He told him, “Try SI.”
Sgt. Perez drove to SI, and Br. Draper spoke to him from the balcony of McGucken Hall. “I asked him if we could house 150 people at SI,” said Perez. “Br. Draper said, ‘Of course.’ With that, my dispatcher radioed in and asked if we had any power out there. I looked up at Brother and he looked back at me. Just then the lights went on all over the school and the neighborhood. It was absolutely amazing. It was like a miracle.”18
“I can’t believe how SI bent over backwards to help these people,” said Sgt. Perez. “We thought they would open their hearts to the homeless, and they did.” For Br. Dan Peterson, SJ, the minister of the Jesuit community, the decision to close the school to help these people was an easy one. “People needed the shelter, and we had the facility. Of course we were going to open up to them. I didn’t have to think twice about it.”
When Sgt. Perez went to the Parkmerced towers, he faced a new problem: They elderly residents there did not want to leave. Because many of them played Bingo at SI, the police asked Br. Draper to drive to Parkmerced. “When I arrived there, the police introduced me as the Bingo Brother from SI. They told the Parkmerced residents that they would sleep in the same place where they played Bingo. Only then did they agree to leave.”19
School was suspended for one week while students and faculty aided the Red Cross and St. Vincent de Paul over the next four days to shelter and feed 200 Parkmerced residents in the Carlin Commons. (The Commons was one of three shelters used by city residents in the aftermath of the Loma Prieta Earthquake.)
Br. Peterson drove through darkened streets to bring cots from the Red Cross and St. Vincent de Paul offices back to SI, and he directed student volunteers to make all parts of the SI campus available to SI’s newest residents. Community Service Director David Mezzera ’64 and Fr. Robert Walsh, SJ ’68, in residence at SI, spent the night with the homeless, offering support and comfort. Also, members of SI’s Bread Connection made runs that night to local food markets that opened their shelves and sent donated items to the McGucken Hall kitchen to feed the temporary residents for the next week.
SI students Mike Cogliandro ’93, John Vito ’90, Rob Newsom ’91, Andrew Nielsen ’92, John McConneloug ’91, Benny Wong ’92 and Mark Beering ’92 were among dozens of students who mopped floors, folded blankets, sorted food and clothing donations and ran errands for the Parkmerced residents. Alumni also pitched in, including Ken Ross ’79, George Torassa ’77 and Jeff McDonnell ’84.
Among the many faculty who came to SI to help was Jim McGarry, who rushed back to SI Tuesday night from a senior retreat. He and Assistant Campus Minister Peter Devine returned to call the parents of the retreatants to tell them their boys were fine.
By Thursday, the number of people needing shelter fell to 80, and by Friday at noon, the Parkmerced residents began moving back into their apartments after city engineers ruled them structurally safe. By 3 p.m., the last SI guest, an elderly woman, boarded the MUNI bus used to shuttle residents back to their apartments. “I helped her get on the bus,” Br. Draper recalled. “She said to me, ‘If we’re still here on Monday, I’ll see you at Bingo, Bingo priest.’ Then she kissed me. I was weary but happy that it was finally over.”20