Jack Broadbent: Got to find a way home

Jack Broadbent, senior landscaping engineer

Two young co-workers brought suddenly together during a catastrophe, stranded in a big, broken city far from their homes. Hungry, frightened, caught in a sidewalk sea of dazed fellow citizens desperate to flee the chaos.

The Loma Prieta Oral History Project interview of Caltrans landscape architects Barbara Bradley and Jack Broadbent has a Hitchcockian feel to it, set in the Bay Area with frenzied suspense, a late twist and a whiff of romance.

An hour or so after the earthquake, the pair rendezvoused in their offices at 150 Oak St. in San Francisco.

“I was so glad to see Jack,” Bradley gushes in the 30-year-old recording. “Was I glad to see someone I knew that lived in the East Bay and was going to have the same problem I did. At least I felt like we could maybe do something together. Whether we stayed here or whether we left, at least I didn’t feel quite so alone.

“So I ran up to him and hugged him, saying, ‘I’m so glad that you’re here, Jack. Don’t leave me!’ ”

When the quake had struck at 5:04 p.m., Bradley had just gotten on BART and Broadbent was getting ready to leave work. He tells Chuck Morton in the old recording: “It felt like I was inside a trailer on a freeway. A bumpy freeway.”

Broadbent, now 59, for the past 15 years has been Caltrans’ supervising landscape architect. Recently he reflected on his experiences of Oct. 17, 1989.

“I went out,” he said, “trying to find some food at a corner convenience store right next to the building, and they wanted to charge me $5 for an apple. So it was my first experience with price gouging during an emergency, and I’m like. ‘Oh, forget this! [Laughter] Guess I’m not eating anything tonight.”

By the time he set off by foot to catch a ferry to Oakland – the Bay Bridge was out of commission and BART trains had stopped, so options were limited – he had been joined by Bradley and three other Caltrans employees, one of whom was confined to a wheelchair. Market Street, he recalled, looked “like a war zone. It really looked like a movie or something.”

As they neared the Embarcadero, bedlam reigned. “There were millions of people there,” Bradley, who has since retired, says in the old recording.

Broadbent, also speaking in 1989, picks up the tale.He says that there was some trepidation that helping out the person with disabilities would complicate matters, but in fact "she became a very, very good advantage for us. As we were able to scream, ‘Handicapped coming through!’ we pushed our way through the crowds all the way up to the front gate where the ferry was leaving.”

Jack Broadbent, 2002

Bradley and Broadbent watched their three colleagues set sail toward Vallejo and waited for the ferry to Jack London Square on what Broadbent called “the overloaded dock.”

“As it swayed back and forth,” Bradley says.

“Yeah, it was getting scary,” Broadbent says. “Wall to wall people. There was hardly room to breathe.”

“We couldn’t have turned around,” she adds. Cue the cinematic violins, right?

The following week, Broadbent was deployed with an erosion control expert to Highway 17, where they focused on “stabilizing the banks that had sloughed down from that earthquake,” he said this past May.

“I learned some techniques there. I understood a little better what erosion control was. And now, being up here in Headquarters’ landscape architecture, I’ve been the leader for erosion control for the entire state.”

In the years right after Loma Prieta, Caltrans embarked on a massive retrofitting project that laid waste to some existing landscaping.

“That digging up of those bridge columns and reinforcing of those bridge columns in such a fast fashion destroyed the irrigation systems that were around them,” Broadbent said. “It broke the main lines, cut the wires, cut the sprinkler systems. …

“People don’t even recognize that what we had from the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s was some pretty lush, formal-looking landscaping.”

Overall, Broadbent said, his Caltrans career has “been rewarding and I’ve gotten a lot accomplished that I can look back on and go, yeah, I did that.” Among other things, he started the storm-water quality program for the Division of Maintenance, and designed landscaping along the Bay Trail from the Bay Bridge to Richmond.

"People don’t even recognize that what we had from the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s was some pretty lush, formal-looking landscaping."
Jack Broadbent, reflecting on the impact of Caltrans’ massive seismic-retrofitting project

What about the two young co-workers packed tightly in a mass of humanity on the pier, 30 years ago? Was that the start of a beautiful relationship? Well, Bradley and Broadbent remained buds, but nothing beyond that.

The night was not without love, however. Once the ferry dropped him off in Oakland, Broadbent was picked up by girlfriend Becky, who in 1992 became his wife. They live in Sacramento and have a grown daughter, Molly.

The violins are serenading after all.