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The Fair Shake


Claim:   After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, a car thief was found crushed to death under a collapsed freeway overpass in the vehicle he'd stolen.

FALSE

Examples:

[Collected on the Internet, 1994]

A man by the name of Jones purchased his dream car on October 17, 1989, a fancy red Porsche. It's what he always wanted. He drove off the lot and headed straight to the third game of the World's Series at Candlestick Park in Oakland, California [sic]. During that historic game, an incredible earthquake hit the city of San Francisco. The game was called off. People came running out of the stadium for their lives. Not only was the game canceled, but he went out there to his dismay, not only had an earthquake hit, but his car had been stolen, as well. A thief had taken his car. The car remained missing for several days as the police were preoccupied with the devastation of the earthquake. Finally they found his red Porsche. It was discovered underneath the collapsed Nimitz freeway. And the thief was still in it. He had died in the car he snatched.
 

[Collected on the Internet, 1990]

This sounds like an urban myth, but I trust the teller.

A friend from Berkeley just started working for the University. His supervisor had the following tale to tell:

The supervisor and his brother were going off to the 3rd game of the World Series on Oct. 17. The brother was taking his new car, a pure white Mercedes with gold trim. He'd bought it three days before.

They get to the game, park, and go to the stands. The earthquake hits. Everyone cheers. Everyone goes out to their cars. However, our two heroes can't find their car — it's been stolen. Somehow they get home, tell the insurance company, and go on with their lives.

A couple weeks ago, the insurance company phoned back saying that they'd found the car. In fact, they'd found the thief as well — he was in the car when they found it ... in the Cypress Structure, crushed to six inches high ...

The brother was horrified, but Andy's supervisor was really happy. "Yes, there is justice in this world!"
 

Variations:
  • The stolen vehicle is typically an expensive one, with makes such as Mercedes, Porsche, Land Rover, and BMW frequently mentioned.
  • The car is found crushed under the collapsed Nimitz freeway or San Francisco Bay Bridge, totaled in an accident on the Santa Monica freeway, or beneath the rubble of a building the quake had brought down.
  • Sometimes the police don't telephone the owner with news of the find; they drop by with a bit of vehicle in their hands: the licence plate, the steering wheel, or what's left of a crushed fender. One version had the police arriving to tell a woman her husband's body had been found because they assumed he, not the thief, was the motorist.
Origins:   At 5:04 P.M. on 17 October 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake struck the San Francisco area. This 7.1 shaker wrought widespread turmoil in the Bay area, killing 62 people, injuring another 3,757 and causing property damage in excess of $6 billion (including rendering the San Francisco Bay Bridge unusable for a month).

Out of all those 62 earthquake-related deaths, not one of them was a crushed car thief in a stolen automobile. This little story has no factual basis although it was passed along as Collapsed freeway a believed tale shortly after the quake. It reappeared again after the 17 January 1994 Northridge quake, that time told as a true event that had occurred in the Los Angeles area. Once again, no crushed car thieves were numbered among the Northridge dead.

[Note that the first example of this legend above isn't even consistent in its details. A car thief departing from Oakland-Alameda County Stadium (as it was then called) would likely use the Nimitz Freeway as an escape route, but the World Series game scheduled for the day of the quake was at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. This inconsistency is likely an attempt to tie together the famous images of the collapsed section of the Nimitz Freeway and the damaged car on the Bay Bridge.]

Those who pass along this legend are often vague about whom it happened to (details about the thief or victim are rarely given), yet a full description of the car is an integral part of the narrative. Its make, model, year, color, and special markings (which vary from telling to telling, by
the way) are lovingly described. These details give the legend that little extra push needed to make owner's grief at losing his car more palpable and the thief's act more heinous. This wasn't an ordinary car, says the legend; this was someone's baby. One is thus encouraged to view the car thief more as a kidnapper than a mere vehicle booster and to agree with the thrust of the story: the scoundrel got what he deserved.

It is that theme of just deserts served up in full portion that speeds this legend along. No one relishes the thought of being victimized in a crime, and compounding that distaste is the knowledge that all too often the perpetrators get away with their misdeeds. In this legend at least, the wrong-doer was brought to justice by his criminal action. Had he not been making off with a stolen vehicle, he wouldn't have lost his life.

Just as the dead thief legend surfaces in the wake of major U.S. earthquakes, so too does the beloved chestnut about a mysterious hitchhiker who just prior to the disaster delivers a dire prophecy from the back seat of a car moments before disappearing into thin air. The doom-saying hitchhiker is a version of the well-known Vanishing Hitchhiker legend.

Barbara "hitch in the plans" Mikkelson

Additional information:
Cypress Freeway Disaster Cypress Freeway Disaster
(Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco)
Last updated:   16 October 2014

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Sources:

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Baby Train.
    New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.   ISBN 0-393-31208-9   (pp. 146-148).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Too Good to Be True.
    New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.   ISBN 0-393-04734-2   (pp. 85-86).

    Roeper, Richard.   Urban Legends.
    Franklin Lakes, NJ: Career Press, 1999.   ISBN 1-56414-418-6   (pp. 61-62).