Search For Bodies to Take Days : State Puts Toll at 273, Then Says It Is Uncertain

Times Staff Writer

Shaken regularly by powerful aftershocks, the Bay Area emerged Wednesday from a fitful night to find a 100-mile-long scene of damage from the deadliest American earthquake since the San Francisco great quake of 1906.

At least 34 people have been found dead in rubble or died at hospitals. Officials continued to dread the toll of victims buried beneath the collapsed double-deck of the Nimitz Freeway through Oakland. Several hundred people may have been crushed under tons of concrete but it will be days before the bodies can be recovered and an actual count taken.

State officials who had estimated Wednesday that the toll would reach 273 dead, later said it was too early to know for sure.

State disaster authorities have counted at least 1,390 injuries, and scores of buildings have fallen in five counties across a swath reaching from San Francisco south to Hollister.

President Bush on Wednesday signed a disaster-relief declaration and said "we will take every step and make every effort" to help. Bush directed an initial $273 million to relief efforts and said he would inspect the area by this weekend. The White House said the money would come from unallocated funds in a $1.1 billion appropriation for Hurricane Hugo relief.

Vice President Dan Quayle met with local officials in the Bay Area Wednesday then toured the area by helicopter with Secretary of Transportation Samuel Skinner.

The 6.9 magnitude jolt hit at 5:04 p.m. PDT, just before the start of Game 3 of the baseball World Series at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. The entire Bay Area had been basking in the glow of the national attention for having its two baseball teams in the series.

Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent, in a candle-lit press conference, said that Game 3 of the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics would not be played as scheduled Wednesday night. Later he said the series would resume next Tuesday in San Francisco.

Mayor Lionel Wilson of Oakland , which was supposed to host two games this weekend, said his city could not even provide security for the game before next week, let alone make other preparations.

"I told them that at this time I felt it would be inappropriate to play baseball in our city while there are still bodies still resting under the concrete of the overpass," Wilson said.

So far, 13 bodies have been retrieved from the debris left when a half-mile of the upper deck of the Nimitz Freeway, a portion of Interstate 880 near the entrance to the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, collapsed on rush-hour commuters on a lower level.

In some places rescuers were left a crawl space 1 or 2 feet high between the lower deck and the upper deck. But in some spots the two decks meet in a tight fit, leaving no hope for any motorists caught underneath.

"It's like a huge concrete sandwich with people in between," said Alameda County Sheriff Charles C. Plummer, who added it could take five days to dig out the victims. "It's total devastation."

Kyle Nelson, public information officer with the California Department of Transportation, said 150 to 250 vehicles -- including some buses -- may be crushed between the decks.

Searchers used sniffing dogs briefly Wednesday to look for more victims, but gave up the effort about noon after concluding there were no other survivors. "To the best of our knowledge now, there are not any people still alive on this freeway," Mayor Wilson said Wednesday afternoon.

However, at dusk on Wednesday, another victim was pulled alive from the rubble.

It may takes days to recover the bodies, officials said. "It's going to be real slow, painstakingly slow," said Marty Boyer, spokeswoman for Alameda County. "It's very grim out there."

Rescuers shined lights and probed metal rods into the crawl space in the darkness Tuesday night, but they moved cautiously. Sections of pavement weighing 500 tons each were piled at odd angles.

"They are afraid it is going to collapse with the slightest aftershock," said Nelson, the Caltrans spokesman. "Sound, movement, anything could make it go."

Said Craig Kocian, acting city manager of Oakland: "It is possible that if a piece of concrete is moved the rest will come down like a domino."

Still, there were courageous rescue attempts, and some successes.

A 6-year-old boy, Julio Berumen, was finally removed from his family's crushed car about midnight Tuesday. He had lain next to his mother's corpse for hours. Rescuers had to cut the mother's body in half to reach Julio. Dr. James Betts, director of trauma services at Children's Hospital in Oakland, then crawled through the rubble and after three hours of work freed the boy by amputating his right leg above the knee.

"I just felt we needed to do whatever was needed to save the kid's life," Betts said.

Rescuers found one other case where a child was pulled from a car, leaving the body of a parent behind. "I hope I'm never involved in something like this ever again," Betts said.

The confirmed death toll of 34 is lower than state officials reported in the first frantic hours after the earthquake before sunset on Tuesday. The state Office of Emergency Services also has stopped saying that it expects the death toll to reach 270 or more, even though the predictions would have to be true if the estimate of trapped vehicles is true.

Frank Potter, a spokesman for the state office, said the agency decided to be more conservative today after its numbers received wide attention. "We weren't being very sure yesterday, as we should have been," he said.

At least 10 deaths have been confirmed in San Francisco, where thousands of residents and suburban commuters stranded by damage to the Bay Bridge and the shutdown of the Bay Area Rapid Transit trains spent Tuesday night out of doors or in hotel lobbies.

Five other deaths have been reported in Santa Cruz County, five in Santa Clara County and one in San Mateo County, state officials said.

Transportation in the Bay Area gradually resumed through the day Wednesday, thanks in large part to residents who heeded advice to stay at home. What traffic there was moved freely. The toll on the San Francisco-bound lanes of the Golden Gate Bridge was suspended in the morning.

Little progress was made on reopening the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, closed when 30 feet of the upper roadway snapped and fell onto traffic lanes on the lower deck. A decision on whether to reopen the bridge with temporary repairs won't be made until an inspection is completed, perhaps later Wednesday.

A crane en route to the bridge will be used to lift the fallen pavement portion so that Caltrans engineers can inspect the bottom span. "What it basically boils down to is that they have to pull that section up and look under it," said Anita Yoder, a state Department of Transportation spokeswoman.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit system reopened Wednesday morning, as did and San Francisco International Airport, Oakland Airport and the San Mateo Bridge. The Golden Gate and Richmond-San Rafael bridges had remained open. The Pacific Stock Exchange in San Francisco was open, but volume was light as traders worked by candlelight, flashlight and light filtering through skylights.

UC Berkeley opened for classes Wednesday, but other area campuses cancelled classes for the day. At the University of California, Santa Cruz, about 10 minor injuries were reported, including some students hit by falling books in the library. Several thousand students camped outdoors Tuesday night until most dormitories were declared to be safe around midnight, officials said.

The Palo Alto Veterans Hospital has been evacuated because of damage and patients moved to Stanford Hospital.

More than 1 million people lost electricity, said a spokesman for Pacific Gas & Electric Co., and said about 400,000 customers remained without power at least part of Wednesday.

Almost all downtown San Francisco highrises were without electricity. "Service is being restored slowly downtown, and the reason is apprehension about possible leaking gas in buildings. We have to work building-to-building," PG&E; spokesman Chuck Peterson said.

Most attention throughout the day Wednesday remained the Nimitz Freeway and surrounding sections of Oakland, where crowds gathered to watch the search and clean-up efforts.

Harrison Brown, 29, had been driving his express delivery truck south on the upper level of the freeway when the quake hit.

"Imagine you're driving down the freeway at a normal pace and all of a sudden the road in front of you just drops. The freeway starts rocking and then there is no more freeway," he said. "Then all around you these people are screaming and hollering."

This stretch of the Nimitz was built between 1955 and 1957 and may have been reinforced after the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, the 6.5 magnitude quake that killed 58 people in the northern San Fernando Valley.

Asked if the Nimitz would meet today's quake standards, even after the reinforcement, Caltrans' Nelson said, "No, it would not meet code today."

Oakland School District Police Officer Dave Drury said dispatches on his police radio indicated some people apparently climbed onto sections of the broken freeway and stole wallets.

"Vultures don't do that. Vultures don't steal wallets," he said with disgust.

Police said there was sporadic looting in downtown Oakland after the quake knocked out power to most of the Bay Area, but no arrests were made. Brick walls and smokestacks were down on several Oakland streets. Twenty-eight people from damaged apartment buildings spent the night in an emergency shelter set up at Martin Luther King School Cafeteria-Auditorium in Oakland.

Commuters who use the Nimitz Freeway through Oakland were talking Wednesday about what could have been.

Judy Stewart, 36, of El Cerrito had driven along the lower deck 10 minutes before the upper deck crashed down. She had left work promptly to attend a Concord concert by Stevie Nicks.

"If I had taken any time getting out of the building, talking to my friends, I would have been in that bottom layer when the sections fell down and left those cars 6 inches tall," she said. The concert was cancelled.

Authorities in San Francisco are using dogs trying to find bodies or survivors of a massive fire that leveled a block of apartment buildings in the Marina District Tuesday night.

"There have got to be people in there -- unless we got real lucky," said Joseph Surdyka, the city's administrative coroner.

There also were three murders that police chief Frank Jordan said were not related to the quake. About 209 people were treated for injuries, 25 of them critical.

Among the dead were two people on the second floor of a collapsed four story, 30-unit apartment complex at the corner of Cervantes and Fillmore, also in the Marina District. They were heard alive about 7 p.m. Tuesday, buried in debris and pleading for help.

"All we could see were their hands sticking out of the rubble," said an emergency medical technician at the scene Wednesday. "They were screaming that they were suffocating." Firefighters tried to feed them oxygen, but the paramedic said: "When I went in at 10 p.m. they were dead." Their bodies had still not been recovered Wednesday afternoon.

Ken Dorrance, co-owner of the building, said a third person believed to have been residing on a lower floor at the time of the earthquake was also missing.

Dogs were busy probing the remains of more than a dozen collapsed and heavily damaged buildings in the Marina district for survivors and bodies. "We have completed searching through six collapsed buildings as best we could," said fire Dept. Capt. John Rebholtz. "At least five more buildings will have to be razed by heavy equipment."

The damage in the newer Marina area came as a surprise to city officials, who expected to find most problems in the older, rundown Tenderloin section or in Chinatown. But streets in the Marina area buckled and many buildings there will have to be condemned, officials said.

"It is not as big as it could have been, but we have all (the damage) we could handle," said Carl B. Koon, head of the city's office of emergency services. "Overall we came out OK." Deputy Fire Chief Michael Farrell said he saw "three or four buildings that used to be four stories high and now they are one story high."

Presbyterian Church officials said Wednesday that the Seventh Ave. Presbyterian Church in San Francisco was "severely damaged."

Teams of inspectors from the city and from Bechtel Co. went building by building looking for structural damage through the financial district.

"The high rises did extremely well," said Nicholas Duchon, a structural engineer from Bechtel. However, Duchon and city engineer Jim Buker -- pointing to damage to several brick buildings up the block -- noted that older structures didn't fare so well.

The city was dark through the night, allowing thousands of residents and stranded workers who spent the hours outside an unusual glimpse of stars. Headlights and an occasional building running on emergency generators were the only bright lights. Among the landmarks that remained lit were San Francisco General Hospital and the glass-front Davies Symphony Hall downtown, but the usually well-lit Bay Bridge was dark except for the flashing lights of emergency crews.

Mayor Art Agnos, tieless and weary looking, gave periodic briefings throughout the day Wednesday. After a tour of the Marina area, Agnos said, "I was dumbstruck by the enormity of the earthquake damage ... It was very scary, very tragic."

He praised the "heroic performances" of the people of San Francisco, whom he credited with aiding their neighbors and acting calmly in the face of disaster. Desite minor looting and a few commercial burglaries, crime was down sharply Tuesday night, he said. Power was gradually restored in the city Wednesday and transportation returned to normal, he said.

In Santa Cruz County, the epicenter of the quake, five bodies have been found so far but officials said there could be others.

Two died when buildings collapsed in the Pacific Garden Mall, a pedestrian mall in downtown Santa Cruz. One died when a bakery collapsed in Watsonville, another in a nursing home and another in a traffic crash following the quake.

In all, 40 buildings collapsed in Santa Cruz and Watsonville, where damage was estimated at $350 million, Santa Cruz County emergency services coordinator Dinah Phillips said. Hospitals remain open, but Highway 17, the main link to San Jose, was blocked by landslides and fissures. The highway crosses the San Andreas Fault near the quake's epicenter.

A wildfire had consumed 650 acres, while 25 buildings had also been burned by small fires. Officials were advising residents to boil all water because of concerns about broken water and sewer lines.

"People should stay home. They should boil their water. They should clean up and prepare for a long haul," said Phillips, public information officer for the county.

The small city of Los Gatos, in Santa Clara County, suffered some of the heaviest damage in the Bay Area. Pavement was buckled on streets in the center of town, natural gas and water lines were ruptured, and several dozen Victorian homes were shifted off their foundations. Many chimneys had crumbled and some homes had simply collapsed.

On Main Street downtown, brick rubble from building facades was piled 3 feet high in some areas. No one was killed but Los Gatos police reported 15 to 20 injuries that required hospitalization.

Officers stood guard in the downtown area through the night to ward off looters. They were joined by wary shopkeepers.

"I'm just out to keep an eye on things," said Loren Johnson, who family owns a building on Main Street. "A lot of people are sleeping outside their buildings tonight."

A day-care operator in Santa Clara, who had nine children and three parents in her home when the quake hit, said she huddled in the doorframe with the toddlers and infants, who were terrified but remained very quiet.

"It was bad, really bad. We really shook," said Celia Moreno, whose husband, Armando, survived the Managua earthquake of 1971.

At City Hall, San Jose spokeswoman Callie Gregory said the city had weathered the jolting quite well, largely because redevelopment has replaced many of the city's old buildings with new ones in recent years.

"San Jose got off real easy on this one," Gregory said. "We're just trying to help our neighbors."

Five commercial buildings in San Jose suffered "major structural damage," including two downtown office buildings and a department store.

Further south in Hollister, a city located along the San Andreas Fault, a "couple hundred" homes were damaged and the city was left without water, power or telephones, San Benito county clerk John Hodges said. There were 49 minor injuries but no deaths.

"San Benito County was real, real fortunate," Hodges said.

Still, the entire downtown of Hollister was closed off and buildings carried signs warning that they were unsafe for entry until further notice.

"Water is a major problem right now," said county administrative officer David Edge.

The city of Los Angeles sent five engineers and 25 building inspectors to help San Francisco area authorities with safety inspections of damaged buildings. Southern California Gas Co., responding to a request for help from the main Bay Area utility, Pacific Gas and Electric, flew 33 staff members to San Francisco.

Bay Area hotels were said to be offereing reduced rates for victims and to be setting up cots in their ballrooms to accommodate those in need. Cots were set up at the Hyatt Regency in San Jose, where some families doubled up in rooms.

Flights to the Bay Area from Los Angeles were booked solid Wednesday by homeward-bound travelers and businessmen as airlines struggled to restore service in one of the nation's busiest air corridors.

American Airlines added a special jumbo jet flight to help relieve the crunch. Car rentals were up at Los Angeles area airports Tuesday night and Wednesday, a Hertz spokeswoman said, as many frustrated travelers decided the quickest way to the Bay area was by land.

This story was written in Los Angeles by Times staff writer Kevin Roderick based on staff reports from the Bay Area.

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