When the shaking stopped I turned around and saw Chuck, who sits behind me, crawling out from under his desk.

First words out of my mouth: “Looks like we’re going into Page One.” Not that anybody had to be told. The quake rattled the newsroom long enough and hard enough to send our news-detection meters into the red. At first we had no idea how bad things were: we could’ve been just down the road from a minor earthquake, or a hundred miles from one that flattened a small city.

Fortunately, it was the former: a magnitude 5.6 quake on the Calaveras Fault, within a mile of where we used to live in the hills east of town.

Nobody in the newsroom was hurt, but somebody could’ve been: A TV mounted on a high shelf tumbled to the floor with a crash. A water pipe sprang a leak near the business desk and maintenance people had to be called in. Somebody said the pressroom was the safest place to be because the entire press is on rollers. Don’t know if that was any comfort to the guys installing plates three stories up in the beast when it came to life for about 30 seconds.

The rumbling topped just after 8 p.m. and our first-edition deadline was around 11. Reports from the field started pouring into the newsroom e-mail system and everybody with a notepad and writing utensil started sending bits and pieces of the story. This was my favorite, from Food Editor Julie Kaufmann, who was at a middle school band concert:

At Spangenberg Auditorium in Palo Alto, the Jordan Middle School Symphonic Band kept right on playing “Estampie” by W. Francis McBeth when the earthquake struck in the middle of a concert.

“They didn’t tell us to stop,” said clarinetist Zoe Greene, 13, with a shrug.

“I knew the lights wouldn’t fall because of the safety cords, but I was worried about the curtain” said Chloe Koseff, another 13-year-old clarinet player whose knowledge of stage lighting safety procedures comes from her role as stage manager for the school’s theater productions.

Band conductor Vivian Boudreaux-Mikasa kept the group right on tempo during the shaking. “At first I thought it was the wind blowing outside,” she said. “If it had gone on any longer, I would have told them to duck and cover.”

Had the quake struck half an hour later, the music would have been more appropriate: John Higgins’ “Habitat (Visions of a Fragile Planet)”.

Nice touch there. (More of the Merc’s coverage here.)

Putting the story into words was challenge enough; finding pictures was another matter altogether. The quake happened after dark, so there wouldn’t be much damage within camera range. But in one of those crazy coincidences that happen only to photojournalists (I worked with a guy in Tampa who had a car crash into a travel trailer right in his viewfinder as he was shooting a picture for a story about a dangerous intersection), Richard Koci Hernandez, one of our top shooters, was interviewing a bunch of people in Willow Glen when the rumbling started. Instinctively, he started taking pictures, one of which showed a woman huddling under a sturdy table. When it was over, everybody dashed out of the house and he came to the paper with the lead photo for Page One.

My shift was up at 10 p.m. and by then the newsroom had everything pretty much under control and my prime duty — staying out out everybody’s way and attending to some non-quake-related pages — was pretty much done. I left them to their labors. If it’d been the Big One, however, I’d probably still be there.

It’s a thankful fact of life that news like this unfolds so rarely … big news is almost never good news, and we’d find nits to pick no matter how good the news is (I can see the headline: “Defense workers rue Second Coming”).

What keeps us doing it night after night, wading through story after story of lost dogs, inept public officials, this week’s scientific breakthroughs disproving last week’s breakthroughs? I can’t speak for everybody else; all I know is that the visceral rush of chasing the story after Real News happens would be declared illegal if the Drug Czar got wind of it.