The Phoenix Arising by Mitchell Near

A structural engineer living in San Francisco is fascinated and awed by the fickle power of earthquakes; by Mitchell Near.

We tell ourselves that the earth is stable. We tell ourselves that the sidewalks we walk on, the streets we drive on, the subway tunnels we careen through, will remain in place. The streets of our city, San Francisco, California, will not buckle and roll like the waves washing onto Ocean Beach. The gas and water pipes, the electrical conduits, writhing under the streets, embraced by the earth, will continue to function, to deliver the gas to heat our homes and cook our meals, the water to clean our clothes and our bodies, the electrical current to power our lights and our computers. These are all lies.

I've known since I was six years old that the earth was more akin to a giant sleigh ride than a benign platform for humans to conduct their affairs on. My father, Matt Feinburger, worked as an oil geologist. He brought home fossils of marine creatures, sea urchins and ammonites, outlined in decayed limestone. He'd hold them up for me and my sister, Sarah, at dinner and tell us stories of the cretaceous era, stories of oceans transformed into mountains. Stories of giant plates slipping and sliding past one another. Stories of pent-up energy, of earthly stress, periodically released in the rumbles and rollings of earthquakes.

Mom changed the subject, temporarily, to the best potting soil for her asters growing in the iridescent blue pots she had formed and fired with her own hands. Sarah and I found the fossils and moving plates of the earth more compelling. And, as we lived in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles County, the earth would be moving at some point in our collective futures.

That future arrived on Tuesday, February 9th 1971 at 6:00 am. I awoke from a dream of riding my stingray bike with banana seat along a dirt path among towering redwood trees, only to find my bed transformed into a ship on a sea of heaving waves. For twelve long seconds, I rode the waves with my arms and legs outstretched on my mattress. Quite amusing for an eleven-year-old.

I heard screams from Sarah's bedroom and the moans of a she-wolf from the kitchen. I swung my legs over the side of my bed and stood up, a bit wobbly for the first few seconds, like a sailor too long at sea. I ambled into the kitchen in my Batman pajamas. My parents stood together in an embrace, my mother's face against my father's shoulder and my father's face looking out towards me. He nodded and smiled, a slight up-curling of the lips, a Mona Lisa smile. The earth had spoken; its ongoing destruction and creation continued into the present of the Feinburger family on Crest Rose Lane.

"Welcome to Bridge and Bolt, David! The finest engineering firm in San Francisco," Mr. Bridge greeted me as I walked into his office. He sat behind a mahogany desk wearing a three-piece steel gray suit that matched his steel gray hair. And behind him, looking north, out of the glass wall, from the thirtieth floor of the 345 California Center, I gazed out over an expansive view of San Francisco. Coit Tower rose out of the crest of Telegraph Hill and the Golden Gate Bridge emerged from fingers of fog curling about its towers.

I stood behind the guest chair and paused for a moment, taking in the dramatic scene. "Thank you, Mr. Bridge. I'm very happy to join the firm."

"Pretty amazing view. Isn't it?"

"Yes, it is." I continued to stand.

"Please have a seat, David. The chair's a Philippe Starck design."

I sat down in front of his desk on the black-cushioned edge of the three-legged chair. It had two legs in front, one in back, and a curved mahogany shell in place of chair back and arms. "Cool chair, Mr. Bridge," I said.

"Call me John. No need for formalities, David. We all go on a first name basis here."

"Yes, sir. I mean, yes, John."

"I wanted to personally congratulate you for making it through all those interviews and joining us here on your first day. How's it feel to be here?"


"Glad to hear that. I'm sure you'll be right at home here. Any questions for me before you get settled into your new office?"

"Yes. Bridge and Bolt. How did that happen? I mean the names, too good to be true."

John leaned back in his black leather chair and chuckled a bit. "I know, I know. Well, I guess it's just good fortune. John Bridge and Mark Bolt. We met at UC Berkeley, two local boys. And, no, we didn't change our names."

"What's some of the more interesting work you've done?"

"You see the Transamerica Pyramid behind me, 600 Montgomery?"

"Yes, sir."

"We did the engineering for that. The waterfront used to stop at Montgomery Street. Most of what you see around you is on landfill, including this building. Things like to wiggle in that goop."

"How did you handle the earthquake issues?"

"We helped create the trusses. That mitigates earthquake shear forces. Walk by it and take a careful look."

"I'll do that, John."

I stood up and reached my arm across the desk to shake hands with John Bridge. Then, I found my new office, in the center of the floor. There were no views, but light came in through clerestory windows. I had a desk, a phone and a Compaq personal computer. It was June 1st, 1988, and after completing my master's degree at UCLA and three years at a small firm in San Diego, my career as a structural engineer was reaching new heights.

I'd moved from one city threatened by earthquakes, Los Angeles, to another city threatened by earthquakes, San Francisco. Multiple areas of the city were composed of landfill. In an earthquake, the particles of soil lose coherence, split apart, especially in areas of water saturated fill. That is liquefaction and that is something best avoided. I carefully studied the liquefaction map for San Francisco before deciding where to live.

I rented a studio apartment near the top of Nob Hill. I could walk to work from there and it wasn't built on landfill. The gold seekers of 1849, in their rush to get to the gold fields of the Sierra Nevada, abandoned their sailing ships in Yerba Buena Cove. The cove, including over forty rotting ships from the Gold Rush era, was filled with landfill during the 1850s and now many of the city's financial district's skyscrapers sunk their foundations into the slime of history. I worked in a highly engineered building sitting on landfill; I certainly wasn't going to live in an eighty-year-old apartment building sitting on mud that would turn into rolling waves of jelly in the next earthquake.

Monday morning, late June, 7:30 am, I walked east, down the steep south sidewalk of California Street starting at the top of Nob Hill. I could see the waters of the Bay and a bit of the Bay Bridge. Not too many tourists about and only a few hardy pedestrians accompanied me. The air clean, the eastern sun warmed me in the sixty-degree weather. I'd be sitting at my desk within twenty minutes. This was the way to commute.

I wore a light gray business suit with a pale blue tie, and, atop my head, a dark gray fedora. Look at the old photos of San Francisco in the thirties or forties. Every man is wearing a hat. Hats add style, hats protect one's head from the sun. At age twenty-eight, I still had a full head of black hair, but I looked oh-so-cool in that gray fedora. And shades to match, as the eastern sun streamed into my eyes.

By 8:00 am, I was at my desk, cup of coffee and a croissant, perusing the blueprints for the foundations of a new skyscraper, Embarcadero West, to be built just north of us at 275 Battery Street. John Bridge walked in through the open door.

"David! So glad to see you at your desk and hard at work at 8:00 am."

"Glad to be here, John. I always enjoy checking out the details on the building foundations."

"Speaking of foundations, I've got a fun task for you. Have you heard of Fort Mason Center?"

"No, John. I'm still learning my way around the city. Tell me about it."

"Fort Mason, that's where the GIs shipped out for the Pacific during the Second World War. Starting in the 70s, it got transformed into exhibit halls, theaters, restaurants. There's a restaurant called Greens out there. Vegetarian, but still very good."

"Sounds interesting, John. What's the task?"

"Take a cab out there and check out the exhibit spaces. They're old piers with the structures sitting on wooden piles. They need some seismic upgrades. Meet the site manager at Greens at noon. Buy lunch for the two of you and expense it. Then, check out the site. Probably doesn't need much more than some seismic joints to tie the structure into the pylons."

"Sounds fun. What about the manager? How will I recognize him?"

"Her, David. Name's Sophie Ricci. She's the daughter of a friend of mine. She'll be waiting for you just inside Greens. Blonde hair, green eyes. About your age."

I paid the cabbie and stepped out of the taxi in front of Greens Restaurant. A gust of wind whipped through my hair and transported a scent of salty bay waters into my nostrils. I opened one of the two black walnut doors set within a framework of window panes and walked into the waiting area of Greens.

About a dozen people gathered in the compact waiting area, mostly seated on built-in benches. A young woman wearing a sea-green dress stood in front of the maître d' station conversing with a young man in a navy-blue suit. Then, she turned to face me. The color of her eyes matched the color of her dress. Her straight blonde hair, parted in the middle, fell to her shoulders. She looked directly at me, smiled, strode over to where I stood, and asked, "Are you Mr. Feinburger? From Bridge and Bolt?"

"Yes, I am," I replied, trying not to smile too broadly. "And you must be Ms. Ricci."

"That I am, but please call me Sophie. Ms. Ricci is much too formal."

"Okay, Sophie. And call me David. Mr. Feinburger, that's my father."

"Well, David. Our table is ready and waiting. Follow me."

I almost said 'I'll follow you anywhere,' but I kept my mouth shut. We walked to the maître d' station where the man in the navy-blue suit guided us up a couple of stairs into the dining area and to our two-person table. We sat down across from one another. I turned my head a bit to my left and gazed out the panel of windows. Practically within arm's reach, the blue-green water of the marina reflected the hulls, masts and rolled up sails of several dozen sailboats. Beyond the breakwater of the marina, the open waters of the Golden Gate flowed under the orange towers of the Golden Gate Bridge, and beyond that, stood the summer-tawny hills of the Marin Headlands. I turned my head back to face Sophie. "Beautiful," I said.

"Yes, it is. Let's take a look at the menu."

"You can do the ordering. I'll eat anything, or almost anything."

A waiter arrived. "Ready to order?"

"Yes," said Sophie. "We'll both have the grilled fig salad, roasted potatoes, and Moroccan baked eggplant. And, a slice each of that scrumptious flourless chocolate cake."

The waiter departed. "That all sounds delicious." I paused for a moment. "How did you end up being the site manager for Fort Mason Center? Did you study any engineering?"

"I have a degree in English literature from UC Berkeley. Not too many jobs for that. My father helped me get the job, but I've educated myself and become quite enamored of Fort Mason and keeping it ship-shape."

"I'm sure you have. Mr. Bridge, my boss, mentioned your father."

"John, you mean. He's like a part of our family. A wonderful man."

"Tell me about your father, if that's an appropriate thing to request."

"It is. My father is Lucio Ricci, San Francisco real estate developer. He owns apartment buildings all around the city. He's been buying up sites in SOMA, says that will be the happening neighborhood in the future, complete with exclusive condos and gleaming office towers."


"South of Market. Sort of an industrial area. Other than the new convention center, it feels pretty seedy to me. I feel a bit unsafe walking down there."

"It is a bit unsafe. More than a bit unsafe. And I'm not talking about guys with trench coats and panhandlers."

"Then what are you talking about?"

"Liquefaction zones. Landfill. SOMA is one of the areas built largely on landfill. Next big quake, it turns to vibrating mud."

"What about the Marina District?"

"Also built on landfill. That's why we need to look at those exhibit buildings. We need to see how to retrofit them to be as safe as possible."

"Right. You know, I live in the Marina District. I walk to work from my apartment. It only takes me ten minutes to get here."

"I'd ask your landlord what he's done to make the building earthquake safe. I chose a place in Nob Hill. Pretty stable ground up there."

The waiter arrived with the grilled fig salads and we fell into a rambling conversation about the novels of Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy and the eponymous tower designed by Gustav Eiffel and the flying buttresses of the high gothic cathedrals. By the time we were half-way through our flourless chocolate cake, we'd exchanged home phone numbers. We headed off to examine the exhibit halls of Fort Mason Center, sitting on wooden piles buried in the waters of the bay, with the ghosts of American soldiers shipping out to the Pacific during World War II hovering nearby.

No matter my assertions, I couldn't convince Sophie to move out of the Marina District. She loved her apartment, her walking commute, her neighborhood. My engineering admonitions buttressed by talk of landfill, liquefaction, and the soft-story building she lived in, a ground floor of garages, both ugly and dangerous as the seismic waves rolled through the soil, left her unconvinced. She'd grown up in San Francisco, in an Edwardian mansion on Lake Street in the Richmond District. Earthquakes were part of the territory; nothing bad had ever happened to her or her family.

She remained in the Marina District and I continued to reside on Nob Hill. Our courtship revolved between the two neighborhoods. Sometimes, on a Saturday morning, I'd walk to her place from Nob Hill, down the north side of Nob Hill, up to the top of Russian Hill and back down toward Fort Mason and then west on Bay Street into the Marina District. I might have taken a less strenuous route, but I enjoyed the climbing and the views of the north Bay.

After a year had passed, after many evenings at the San Francisco Symphony, listening to the music of Dvorak or Mozart or Debussy, after weekend hikes to the top of Mt. Tam in Marin County, after morning walks along the Marina Green next to the Bay, after one close-to-breaking-up and then reuniting as a couple, we spoke of moving in together. We could not agree on where to move in together. I walked to work; she walked to work. Neither of us were giving that up. We each stayed in our respective apartments.

I'm at my desk, a bit past 5 pm, Tuesday, October 17, 1989. I hear the low thunder of seismic waves. I feel the shaking of the earth, transported through the steel framework of a modern skyscraper, in my feet. The movement intensifies. I dive underneath my desk and hold my hands over the back of my head. I hear co-workers scream and moan. The building itself sways back and forth. This is not the entertaining ride from my childhood. This is Shiva destroying the old order to allow the birth of the new. I count to fifteen. The shuddering ceases.

I crawl out from under my desk and stand up. The fluorescent lights in my office are off and then back on again. Must be the building's backup generator kicking in. My co-workers run past the open door of my office. "David!" I hear Rick, our office manager yell. "We're all getting out of here. Elevators aren't working. Down the stairs!"

I grab my blue backpack, slip my arms through the straps and walk out into the open office area where books and blueprints lie scattered about on the floor. A dozen or so of us head to the stairwell. I wait my turn behind Karen and Mark, and then proceed into the stairwell. Thirty floors of stairs to walk down. We proceed calmly, methodically, slowly, as other office workers join us from floors on the way down.

We emerge onto Sansome Street. I check my watch; it's 5:22 pm. Hundreds of small shards of glass cover the sidewalks and streets. I walk up to California Street. The Bank of California building has deposited large fragments of its Corinthian column capitals on the sidewalk. The traffic lights are out. A young guy wearing black jeans and a white shirt stands in the middle of the intersection at California and Sansome directing traffic.

I walk west, up the wide sidewalk of California Street. Several hundred other people accompany me. Along with the shock displayed on their faces, there is an almost celebratory mood, a sense of common spirit, a uniting of humanity after the roar of Hades from the underworld. I look across the street and see a six-story building with an all-glass façade. Inside the façade, large pipes painted blue and red run vertically adjacent to the glass wall. Near the top of one blue pipe, water spews from a crack and runs down the interior of the glass façade, an unintended waterfall.

After a twenty-minute walk, I'm in my Nob Hill apartment. The building appears undamaged and the sole evidence of the earthquake in my place is a scattering of books on the floor. One book lies open to display a photo of the Duomo of Florence. I'd used my pocket flashlight to navigate the stairs up to the fourth floor. I grab a better flashlight and stuff it into my backpack. I call Sophie's office number. I let the phone ring a dozen times; no answer. I try her home number. After a couple of clicking sounds, I hear a recorded voice say, "We are unable to complete your call at this time. Please try again later."

I put the phone down. It rings. "Hello, this is David."

"David! Are you okay? Is Sophie with you? No one answers at her apartment or her office."

"I'm okay, Mrs. Ricci, but I'm sorry to say that Sophie's not here."

"We're so worried about her."

"I'm on my way to the Marina right now. I will find her."

"Good luck, David! Please call us back when you know more, even if it's late."

"I will, Mrs. Ricci. Bye for now." I hang up the phone and strip off my business suit and throw on jeans, plaid shirt, windbreaker and hiking boots. I add a couple of water bottles and several granola bars to my pack. I head back down the stairs and toward the Marina District.

I walk quickly, down the north side of Nob Hill and up to the crest of Russian Hill. I see thick curls of black smoke rising over portions of the Marina District. I jog down the hill and then west on Bay Street. Fifteen minutes after spying the smoke, I'm standing in front of the apartment building that Sophie lives in. Or, what's left of it. The façade slopes at a twenty-degree angle from the north to the south side. A car half-in and half-out of one of the ground floor garages lies crushed beneath the weight of the building. Vertical gashes six-feet long slice through the stucco astride several of the bay windows. The external fire escape in the center of the façade remains intact, but slopes at an eighty-degree angle from the building cornice rather than at a right angle. Chunks of plaster rest on the sidewalk.

I stand on the street, in front of the building, staring, sweat pouring down my face, my mouth open. A man wearing a hardhat walks by me. "Is there anyone in there?" I manage to croak.

"Nobody in there, my friend. We got 'em all out. Last one about ten minutes ago."

"Where did they go?"

"Not sure. Some went to the Marina Middle School, over on Fillmore."

I nod my head in thanks and start walking toward Fillmore. A block later, I close in on the flames and smoke engulfing a three-story apartment building. A couple of dozen men carry a long white firehose on their shoulders and run by me toward the flames.

Without thinking, I join the line of men carrying the firehose. I place my three-foot section on my right shoulder and run with the others toward the burning building. As we get close, firemen take the hose from us. Water begins coursing through the hose and emerges in a spewing stream of liquid to battle the flames. I hear cheers from the crowd. I hear myself cheering with them.

The guy next to me, a tall Asian man, pats me on the shoulder. "Fireboat Phoenix," he says.

"Huh?" I reply.

"No water pressure in the Marina. They called in the fireboat. We're pumping water from the bay."

"The Phoenix arises to live again!" I shout. I high five the Asian guy and start jogging toward Fillmore.

The sky is darkening. I wipe sweat from my forehead and note the soot from the fire deposited on the back of my hand. I continue my journey. I see windows at odd angles, garages smashed down toward the street, cracks running through the asphalt of the street like meandering rivers, two black men pushing shopping carts with trash bags and suitcases holding a portion of their worldly belongings, a couple standing on the street embracing in front of one more wavering building at the end of its life.

I reach the middle school. No apparent damage to the building, a three-story art deco structure with sculpted bears' heads staring down from the cornice. A line of fifty or sixty people stands in front of the main doors. I walk slowly along the line of people looking for Sophie. She's not there.

"Are they letting people inside yet?" I ask a middle-aged woman standing near the front of the line.

"Not yet. They're still setting up cots."

I stand there, saying nothing.

"Who are you looking for?" the woman asks.

"My girlfriend," I say. "Late twenties, straight blonde hair, green eyes. Her name's Sophie. Sophie Ricci."

"I'll keep an eye out for her."

"Thank you so much." I dig into my backpack and hand her my business card. I scratch my home phone on the back of it. "Please call me if you see her."

"I will," she looks down at the card, "David."

"And you are?"

"Marie. Marie Gonzalez."

"Thank you, again, Marie." I look at her for a moment, a few tears mixing with the soot on my face, and then walk away.

I check my watch, 7:35 pm. She could be at her office. I walk the three blocks to Fort Mason and then north toward the bay and Greens Restaurant. Ten minutes later, I'm standing outside of Greens. No light emanates from the interior of Greens. The wood frame, three story Building B just to the east of Greens stands at attention, no apparent damage in sight, and also no lights on in the lobby.

I can see by the light of the close-to-full moon as I climb the few stairs to the building entry. I pull on the handle of the front door. It opens. Inside the lobby, I retrieve my flashlight from my backpack and turn it on. I'm alone. I walk to the end of the hall and up one flight of stairs, twenty feet down a hallway and stand in front of Sophie's office. I knock on the door. No one answers. I pull the door knob; it's locked. I sit down on the floor with my back against the office door.

I'm not one given to prayer. I did read from the Torah at my bar mitzvah. I hated the whole thing, other than the party afterwards, and my father's gift of an outdoor weather station that could determine barometric pressure. But, I do perceive an underlying order to the universe -the spiral growth pattern in an aloe polyphylla or a snail shell or a cyclone; the golden ratio that great builders used in the Acropolis, the Cathedral of Chartes, and the Tempietto Chapel in Rome; the fractal patterns in rivers, snowflakes, and lightning.

I bow my head a bit further than it is already bowed. I place my hands flat against one another. I close my eyes. And, in the privacy of my thoughts, I say, "Blessed are you, the mind behind the order of all existence, who has sanctified us with its wisdom and love, May all the persons I hold dear be safe. May my Sophie be safe. Amen."

I open my eyes and stand up, a bit wobbly on my feet. I pull the water bottle out of my pack and take a long, slow drink. I close my eyes again. I see buildings consumed by flames, black smoke rising into the sky, streets broken into segments of asphalt, cars crushed by the mass of the buildings collapsed upon them. Perhaps I won't find her. Perhaps she's gone.

I dismiss the thought, open my eyes, and walk out of Building B, out of Fort Mason Center and up the hill toward the top of Russian Hill. Some apartment building windows shine with electric light; others parade dark windows. At the bottom of Nob Hill, in the display window of a tailor's shop, a handcrafted sign in black ink on white paper declares, "Bay Bridge collapses!"

I trudge up the north side of Nob Hill. I reach my apartment building. The exterior sconces are on and the lobby is lit up. I unlock the front door and proceed up the stairs to my fourth-floor apartment. There's a note taped to the door with my name written on it. I pull the note off the door and unfold the paper. "David," it reads. "Please knock on my door when you get home. Don't worry about what time it is. Yelena."

Yelena, the landlady, ground floor apartment, a sweet babushka with a Russian accent, lives alone, but knows everyone in the building, most of their loved ones, and half the residents of Nob Hill. She sees Sophie as her long lost granddaughter. I let the note fall to the floor. I keep my backpack on. I turn around and dash down the three flights of stairs, two stairs at a time. I stand in front of Yelena's door and knock three times. She unlocks the door and peers up at me with a smile. "David!" she says, and hugs me. "Come in! Come in! I have a surprise for you!"

We walk, hand-in-hand, through her living room, the walls teeming with black and white photos of family members from the old country, into her dining room. And there, sitting at Yelena's mahogany dining room table, just behind a white porcelain bowl stacked high with yellow-green pears and shining red apples, smiling her radiant smile, is Sophie.

After a sound night's sleep and a breakfast of coffee and brioche, my wife and I wander inside the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, the Duomo of Florence, a marvel of architecture and engineering. I study the mosaic pavements, mandalas of marble, as I walk. I then stand directly under the dome and gaze up over three-hundred feet at the frescoes of the last judgement painted on the interior of the dome. But, there are actually two domes, not one.

The cathedral had stood with no dome for over one-hundred years. In 1420, Filippo Brunelleschi, after winning the competition to erect the dome, began his supervision of the construction of the dome according to his design. Two domes, both in the shape of an octagon, held together by interlocking rings of wood and stone, the rings holding in check the pressures of outward expansion.

Sixteen years later, in 1436, the dome stood as the sentinel of the Florence skyline, four million bricks composing the outer dome with the inner dome constructed of sandstone and marble. Over time, cracks developed in the brick dome, expanding in winter, contracting in summer, like the labored breathing of a giant tortoise.

Humanity's great architectural wonders, the crust of the earth and our very lives, all move along fractures. We plan, we engineer, to protect ourselves from the dangers of the movements of faults and cracks. But these ruptures allow us to live more fully than if the facades of our buildings and the surfaces of the earth were faultless.

Sophie grasps my hand and leads me out of the Duomo and into the sunlight of a Tuscan spring.


  1. An excellent description of San Francisco, where I was living in 1989. With fires and droughts and Covid we hardly think about earthquakes anymore. But we should.

    1. Thanks for reading my story and for your comments. I walked down Market Street with hundreds of other people shortly after the earthquake. Perhaps, you were there too.

  2. The story drew me in with the crisp opening, was interesting, and well written.

  3. A gripping story told from an intriguing point of view...that of a structural engineer and how he came to that profession..that was cool how the protagonist described people working together in a disaster zone...
    and some romance in there also.

    1. Thanks very much for your kind comments, Harrison. My story is based, very roughly, on my own experiences during and after the Loma Prieta earthquake in SF. People did come together to help one another after the quake.

  4. Nicely written...great tension throughout the search for Sophie, couldn't tell which way it was going to go until the very end. The Yelena twist made me smile.

    1. Thanks very much for your comments, Ron! I'm happy to hear that you enjoyed my story.