It wasnt the two hours that San Francisco firefighter Gerry Shannon spent working a chain saw under a collapsed Marina district building that got to him. It was the five minutes he spent lying there while a colleague replaced his blade.
Shannon was on his back in the claustrophobic crawl space, no more than 2 feet high. He could see the glow of approaching fire. He pictured the fire chief ringing the doorbell of his home to inform his wife, Deidre, that her husband had died while trying to rescue a woman trapped in her apartment after the Loma Prieta earthquake. He pictured Deidre giving the news to their three kids.
Those five minutes changed my thinking, Shannon, 74, says now in a voice becalmed by his daily 40 minutes of meditation. They talk about time standing still. It did.
It is a common story among people who have faced a life-threatening situation the promise that if they survive, they will mend their ways and stop wasting time or taking life and family for granted. These vows are often forgotten as soon as the danger is lifted, and Shannon was tempted to go back to his life in the Irish bars of the Sunset District, where he grew up.
He was now a hero with a rescue story that had spread nationwide. He had earned the San Francisco Fire Departments highest medal for valor. Drinks would be on the house for a long time.
But he never went back on the vow to pursue enlightenment that he made under that building the evening of Oct. 17, 1989. He has spent 30 years on a spiritual quest that has taken the fourth-generation city boy out of his element and out of the country.
It was a life-changing day, he says, and I survived it.
Sherra Cox, after months of treatment for injuries caused by the Loma Prieta quake, is greeted by her rescuer, firefighter Gerry Shannon, at the farewell party held for her by hospital staff.
When the TV news helicopters showed flames shooting up from fires all over the Marina after the quake, Shannons son Casey, 9, asked his mother, Do you think dads there? She replied, Yes, then added, but he wont take any chances.
At that moment, Shannon was taking more chances than he ever had. A four-story apartment building at Beach and Divisadero streets had collapsed, its upper stories fallen forward onto the street and its lower floors pancaked to the ground.
Sherra Cox, 56, an office manager, had come home from work early to watch the Giants and As in the World Series. Her building was two blocks from the bay and built on landfill. When the 6.9 earthquake hit at 5:04 p.m., the structure lurched forward off of its foundation and onto the street.
The apartment house next to hers erupted in flames that threatened to spread. The smell of gas was everywhere, and Cox was now trapped beneath heavy beams in the wreckage of her second-floor corner unit.
She managed to work one arm free, grabbed a loose pipe and banged it on the metal post of her bed. A paramedic heard it and alerted the nearest firefighter at hand, who happened to be Shannon, a 20-year veteran who had been detailed to the scene from his station on Jerrold Avenue near Candlestick Park.
When a building collapsed on Cervantes Boulevard in the Marina, Shannons crew of five had been ordered all the way to Divisadero Street. He thought they were sent just as backup. When he got to the top of the hill looking north, the Marina looked like a bomb had gone off, he says.
The building was compressed against the ground, so the only way to reach Cox was to go underneath and cut a path through the floor joists. Shannon got a chain saw from the engine and went to work in the crawl space, so tight he had to take his helmet off to fit. It was slow going. It took him 2 hours and two saw blades to go 35 feet.
But he got to Cox, who had broken her hips and pelvis. By then water was coming into the building from hoses dousing the fire next door. Shannon took off his heavy coat and put it over Cox. She grabbed his hand to make sure he wouldnt leave her, but he had to go get a new saw blade.
I said, Ill be back, I promise you, he recalls. I dont think she believed me. But she finally let go of his hand, and he did come back, 10 minutes later, with a fresh blade to free her from the beam pinning her to the floor.
He crawled back out again, far enough to call for a stretcher board, which paramedic Rich Allen pushed through. He checked Coxs vitals before they put her on the board and pushed her back out the way he had come. The crowd cheered as she was loaded into an ambulance, but she would not let it pull away until she got the last name of the firefighter who rescued her.
The efforts he went to to save a complete stranger, Cox later told The Chronicle. He is the story, I just happen to be the end of it.
Shannon holds a medal the California Firefighters Association awarded him for valor for his daring, lifesaving rescue of Cox.
Shannon never wanted to be the story. He was embarrassed by the attention, even when he was among a dozen heroes to throw out the ceremonial first pitch when the World Series resumed at Candlestick.
I was just a mediocre fireman who was in the wrong place at the right time, he says. You wait your whole career for something like that, and then when it shows up, you dont know how you are going to handle it.
The first sign that he had changed came when he arrived at San Francisco General Hospital the next day with flowers for Cox.
Usually, you dont even call, because if they died it ruins the whole effect, he says. But with her it was different. He kept coming back. When Christmas came around he brought his wife and kids and a tree to brighten Coxs hospital room.
The bond theyd formed over those two hours in her collapsed apartment building was stronger than Shannon anticipated. Cox persuaded him to do something he hadnt done since he was a freshman at Riordan High School read a book. Hed been kicked out of Riordan for fighting, then out of Lincoln High School for the same reason. Hed had to finish at a continuation school.
During Shannons hospital visits, Cox started talking about Eastern religion and philosophy and lending him books. He eventually moved on to the Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. He and Cox would pass books on Buddhism back and forth.
After she was released to start five months of rehab, he visited and encouraged her to walk. She held his arm with one hand and her walker with the other. When Shannon learned that she didnt have a place to go for Thanksgiving, he invited her to spend it with his family.
Cox was a pianist who had played rehearsals for the San Francisco Symphony and Opera. Six months after her release, she and Shannon attended the Opera together. When her health later failed and she was using a wheelchair, Shannon would take her to lunch at Westlake Joes. Shed have a martini. By then Shannon wasnt drinking at all.
It didnt work anymore for me, he says. It wasnt part of my lifestyle.
Hed quit his side job as a bouncer and bartender and stopped playing softball, with its long hours of postgame drinking. His wife, Deidre, had been after him to move from their flat in the Sunset to Marin County, so they did, first to San Rafael then to Novato.
The 2 hours he spent under that building in the Marina and the months he spent with Cox afterward had altered his outlook.
I just wanted to do more with my life besides sitting at a bar watching the Miller Hi-Life sign blink on and off, he says.
The hours he used to spend in bars were now spent at Spirit Rock, a meditation center in West Marin. That led to a pilgrimage to Thailand, searching for the monastery of one of the monks hed studied with. When he returned, he took up silent retreats, sitting for 10 days without moving, looking up or talking in the Mojave Desert. He has been to Nepal and Tibet and sat with the Dalai Lama for 10 days in India.
He sectioned off part of his home for meditation, which he practices for 40 minutes every night at 9 p.m. For years he meditated while wearing a ceremonial shawl and sitting on pillows, with incense burning. But now that hes older, he sits in a chair.
Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion, he says. I steer clear of organized religion.
Shannon has not had a drink in 19 years, though he still plays golf every Monday with his drinking buddies from Riordan, who also became firefighters. His other link to his old San Francisco life was Cox, who had moved to an apartment on Nob Hill.
But she missed the Marina, so Shannon helped her find a corner unit in an apartment building there just like her old one. When he took her there to see it, she halted suddenly at the front door.
She said, Im sorry you went to all of this trouble, but I just cant go in there, he says. I looked at her face and it had all come back to her.
So he found her another place at Lake Merced.
Shannon became Coxs medical guardian as she went through a series of amputations, a result of gangrene that had formed when her circulation had been cut off while trapped. She decided to put an end to the operations in summer 2009, and died about a month later.
When Shannon visited her for the last time, he broke down in tears. He still becomes emotional talking about her now.
She said, What are you upset about? These last 20 years were on the house.
Its now been 30 years on the house for Shannon. For his heroics in rescuing Cox, he was issued the Scannell Medal, the San Francisco Fire Departments highest honor. He was named Fireman of the Year by Firehouse magazine. The manufacturers of Kleenex flew him to Washington to accept a God Bless You Award.
He was promoted to lieutenant in 1995 and captain in 2000. In 2003, he retired after 33 years with the department. The helmet he was wearing on the day of the earthquake and his framed medals are kept in his bedroom. It takes a lot of prodding to get him to bring them out.
Its kind of an ego thing I try to avoid, he says. As a Buddhist, he says, he is dedicated to the present, not the past.
I havent thought about the earthquake in a long time, even when it comes up on the anniversary, he says. Thirty years ago, who remembers that?
Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @SamWhitingSF
Originally posted here:
- Ram Dass, who sought enlightenment through LSD and became spiritual leader, dead at 88 - San Francisco Chronicle - December 27th, 2019
- An Artist Shares Her Most Striking Images of the Decade - The New York Times - December 27th, 2019
- Kung Fu Nuns in Nepal boost their health in the fight for women's rights - KAKE - December 27th, 2019
- Pay-What-You-Can Russian House #1 in Jenner Is One of Californias Most Eccentric Restaurants - Eater SF - December 27th, 2019
- Kanye West plans to evangelize Americas youth with music: No weapon formed against me shall prosper - The Christian Post - November 19th, 2019
- The Real Housewives of Atlanta Recap: Baby of the House - Vulture - November 19th, 2019
- Who Was the Buddha? - Lion's Roar - November 19th, 2019
- MOVIE REVIEW: Scorsese, De Niro and Pesci at their best in 'The Irishman' - Gwinnettdailypost.com - November 19th, 2019
- The Funeral Traditions of Different Culture and Religion - Agence de presse D.I.A. - November 19th, 2019
- Children in Need events across Gwent - South Wales Argus - November 19th, 2019
- With Kartarpur, Pakistan says: Our arms are always open for you whenever you visit - Gulf News - November 19th, 2019
- The Rights Judeo-Christian Fixation - The New Republic - November 19th, 2019
- The World-Soul, Natura and Mother Earth - Patheos - November 19th, 2019
- Seattle City Council election results set the stage for transformative change - Real Change News - November 19th, 2019
- Dispatches #2 and #3 from Doc NYC: Mr. Toilet: The World's #2 Man and We Believe in Dinosaurs - Bright Lights Film Journal - November 19th, 2019
- Lights of Faith: Candles Keep Vigil, Become Votive Offerings - National Catholic Register - November 19th, 2019
- Meaningful Conversations: Spiritual But Not Religious? - UAFS News - November 11th, 2019
- Kanye Wests Sunday Service at the Forum 11/10 - mxdwn.com - November 11th, 2019
- Guiding Light: Back to the Heart - Free Press Journal - November 11th, 2019
- Federal judge halts Texas execution of Patrick Murphy - The Texas Tribune - November 11th, 2019
- 11.11 Wish And Its Meaning: Why is The Time 11:11 So Auspicious Numerologically? Does 11/11 Wish Come True - LatestLY - November 11th, 2019
- Nine German artists talk about their work for season II of bangaloREsidency 2019 - The Hindu - November 11th, 2019
- Meet the Kung Fu Nuns of Nepal - The New York Times - November 11th, 2019
- People welcome 'Cavalcade of Universal Oneness' with open arms - Daily Pioneer - November 11th, 2019
- Is coffee the new alcohol? - Oaklandpostonline - November 11th, 2019
- The Spec-Ops Guys Behind The App Transforming Military Fitness - menshealth.com - November 11th, 2019
- The Cold War between the Medium and the Message: Western Modernism vs. Socialist Realism - Journal #104 November 2019 - E-Flux - November 11th, 2019
- 1 dead, 1 hospitalized after gunmen shot both in the back of the head during apparent robbery - Texas Breaking News - November 11th, 2019
- 10 Bizarre Festivals in Asia You Need to Experience | TheTravel - TheTravel - October 24th, 2019
- President has first ever smart thought; calls for own impeachment - Los Angeles Loyolan - October 24th, 2019
- Hey, John MacArthur. You have a culture. It's called white (Christian) patriarchy. - Patheos - October 24th, 2019
- Tagore and Caste - The Statesman - October 24th, 2019
- One Cure for Malnutrition of the Soul - The New York Times - October 24th, 2019
- 'The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself & Challenged the Modern World to Reform' Book Review - National Review - October 24th, 2019
- Who is Kalki Bhagwan Who Once Predicted Death of Organised Religions and Now Faces I-T Heat? - News18 - October 24th, 2019
- Astrology in the Age of Uncertainty - The New Yorker - October 24th, 2019
- 'To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit': Blake's Visionary Imagination - The New York Review of Books - October 24th, 2019
- The Great Flood and What It Tells Us - The Epoch Times - October 24th, 2019
- How Africans held off German colonialists with spears and arrows for two years during the Maji Maji rebellion - Face2Face Africa - October 24th, 2019
- The Eurozone Civil War Has Several Bay Of PIGS Moments - Seeking Alpha - October 24th, 2019
- Meditation is a potent stress reliever and more - CapeGazette.com - October 24th, 2019
- Marianne Williamson and the religion of "spirituality" - Salon - October 15th, 2019
- Evolution of the guru principle - Economic Times - October 15th, 2019
- Is Vanda Boone's Murder Connected To Nancy Moyer's Disappearance? | Searching For - Oxygen - October 15th, 2019
- What's all the buzz about? Montreal woman seeks to demystify ayahuasca - Montreal Gazette - October 15th, 2019
- The age of distraction | Opinion - Plattsburgh Press Republican - October 15th, 2019
- Hogarth: Place and Progress - ArtLyst - October 15th, 2019
- 4 Reasons Why Chat-based Learning Can Be a Solution To India's Mass Education Challenges - Entrepreneur - October 15th, 2019
- New opportunities for integration and cooperation: Op-ed - Hurriyet Daily News - October 15th, 2019
- Walking the path of the buddha in a neglected corner of India - GQ India - October 15th, 2019
- Non-Violence Is Not the Be-All and End-All of Buddhas Revolutionary Teachings - The Wire - October 15th, 2019
- The philosophy of the Joker - Fabius Maximus website - October 15th, 2019
- Succession Composer Nicholas Britell Talks Creating the Flava That Was Kendalls Rap - IndieWire - October 15th, 2019
- How to Use Tarot Cards as a Spiritual Guide to Everyday Life - Study Breaks - October 5th, 2019
- Clearly, Fans Thinks Demi Lovatos Heartless Apology Letter Is Just For Sake. Blasting Over A Free T ... - The Inner Sane - October 5th, 2019
- 'I put my head in the guillotine for Osho and I would do it again Why can't I be myself? Why do I have to be enlightened?' - Times of India - October 5th, 2019
- The indefatigable Gandhian Subba Rao: Meeting the Mahatma and other encounters of a lifetime - Times Now - October 5th, 2019
- The Carnatic blues of Ross Hammond and Jay Nair - Berkeleyside - October 5th, 2019
- Hospice of Santa Barbara Honors Its Heroes And Raises $178000 - Noozhawk - October 5th, 2019
- The Eclectic Sheldon Theatre is the Jewel-Box of Red Wing - Music in Minnesota - October 5th, 2019
- Your thoughts on Cardinal Burke's vision of church, the partisan divide, parish shopping and more - National Catholic Reporter - October 5th, 2019
- Art, teaching and skills for Seekers: A conversation with author and BYU professor Anthony Sweat, author of - Deseret News - October 5th, 2019
- 'Walk in China' VR Trilogy - Animation World Network - October 5th, 2019
- 7 Signs That You Are Achieving Spiritual Enlightenment ... - June 1st, 2019
- What Is Spiritual Enlightenment or Spiritual Awakening? - June 1st, 2019
- Sedona Spiritual Inspiration & Healing | Visit Sedona - June 1st, 2019
- Ripple Price Forecast: XRP vs SWIFT, SEC Updates, and More - May 25th, 2019
- Cryptocurrency News: This Week on Bitfinex, Tether, Coinbase, & More - May 25th, 2019
- Cryptocurrency News: Bitcoin ETFs, Andreessen Horowitz, and Contradictions in Crypto - May 25th, 2019
- Cryptocurrency News: Looking Past the Bithumb Crypto Hack - May 25th, 2019
- Cryptocurrency News: What You Need to Know This Week - May 25th, 2019
- Cryptocurrency News: XRP Validators, Malta, and Practical Tokens - May 25th, 2019
- Cryptocurrency News: New Exchanges Could Boost Crypto Liquidity - May 25th, 2019
- Cryptocurrency News: Bitcoin ETF Rejection, AMD Microchip Sales, and Hedge Funds - May 25th, 2019
- Bitcoin Rise: Is the Recent Bitcoin Price Surge a Sign of Things to Come or Another Misdirection? - May 25th, 2019
- Cryptocurrency News: Vitalik Buterin Doesn’t Care About Bitcoin ETFs - May 25th, 2019
- Spiritual Enlightenment - Truths, Distortions, and Paths ... - May 13th, 2019
- Spiritual Enlightenment - The Most Profound Truth Revealed ... - May 13th, 2019
- Spiritual Enlightenment | Enlightened Beings - May 13th, 2019
- Spiritual Enlightenment - Spiritual Experience - May 13th, 2019